‘lead­ers’ of a dif­fer­ent kind


At an or­ga­ni­za­tional level, in a sense, mil­len­ni­als are change-mak­ers. While not tak­ing the ex­pected course, they de­mand a relook at many as­pects, hith­erto con­sid­ered be­yond the scope of change. For in­stance, they bring home the fact that im­pact­ful lead­er­ship, in no con­text, can op­er­ate within a com­mand and con­trol paradigm; it has to be demo­cratic, and in­volve guid­ing, coach­ing, sup­port­ing, and fa­cil­i­tat­ing.

Q: How do you lead mil­len­ni­als? A: You don’t.

Acol­league of mine at the Univer­sity of Ex­eter Busi­ness School once ob­served of our stu­dents: “Th­ese peo­ple want to work. But they don’t ne­c­es­sar­ily want jobs.” He had summed up the mil­len­nial out­look on life in a nut­shell. Mil­len­ni­als want to work, not for the sake of it, but so they can do some­thing

that gives their lives both mean­ing and plea­sure. They are an equal com­pound of self­ish­ness and self­less­ness. They see the wrongs in the world and want to put them right, and they see op­por­tu­ni­ties for them­selves in do­ing so. Nor, un­like some older gen­er­a­tions, do they see any con­tra­dic­tion be­tween do­ing good and do­ing well.

We talk a lot about how to mo­ti­vate peo­ple at work, but with mil­len­ni­als the prob­lem is dif­fer­ent. They are al­ready mo­ti­vated. The prob­lem is that what they want to do is not

al­ways what we want them to do. Ed­die Jones, coach of the Eng­land rugby union foot­ball club, put it very clearly in an in­ter­view with the BBC. “Rugby play­ers are very good at do­ing what they want to do,” he said. “My job is to get them do what they don’t want to do.”

That is one way of look­ing at the prob­lem; tak­ing a group of in­di­vid­u­als with dis­parate no­tions about what is im­por­tant to them and what they want to achieve, and weld­ing them into a team with a sin­gle pur­pose. But as any coach of team sports will tell you, this is not al­ways easy, es­pe­cially when work­ing at a high level. If we try to tell mil­len­ni­als what to do, they will push back. And as lead­ers, if we can­not im­pose suf­fi­cient au­thor­ity on them to get them to do what we want them to do, then we have lost. In­stead of a closely knit team pur­su­ing a sin­gle goal, we will have in­di­vid­u­als pur­su­ing their own goals—quite pos­si­bly at odds with the goals of the com­pany.

sup­port­ers and fa­cil­i­ta­tors

There is an­other way to look at the prob­lem. In an ar­ti­cle for Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view ti­tled Lead­ing Clever Peo­ple, Rob Gof­fee and Gareth Jones ask the ques­tion: how do you lead peo­ple who don’t want to be led, and who are prob­a­bly smarter than you? The an­swer in a nut­shell is: you don’t. Mil­len­ni­als are not only self-mo­ti­vated, they are also fully aware of their own abil­i­ties and their strengths (although in my ex­pe­ri­ence, not al­ways their weak­nesses) and are busily match­ing th­ese to their am­bi­tion. They do not want to be led, be­cause they do not see any need for lead­er­ship. They al­ready know what they want to do.

Mil­len­ni­als are not only self-mo­ti­vated, they are also fully aware of their own abil­i­ties and their strengths and are busily match­ing th­ese to their am­bi­tion.

What they of­ten lack, how­ever, are the fa­cil­i­ties to en­able them to reach their dreams. They may lack fi­nan­cial re­sources, or tech­nol­ogy, or sup­port from other mil­len­ni­als to fill in the miss­ing gaps in their own skills sets. They may have trou­ble ac­cess­ing the right in­fra­struc­ture, or—again very of­ten in my ex­pe­ri­ence—the right mar­kets. The old Amer­i­can say­ing, ‘build a bet­ter mouse­trap and the world will beat a path to your door’, is not ac­tu­ally true. Lots of good ideas, lots of re­ally valu­able in­no­va­tions, are lost ev­ery year be­cause the clever peo­ple who think them up can­not find a clear path to mar­ket.

One of the things lead­ers can do, then is to serve as fa­cil­i­ta­tors. They can help mil­len­ni­als find the tech­no­log­i­cal and fi­nan­cial re­sources they need to carry out their projects, and they can help them to de­velop sup­port teams who will en­able them to func­tion more ef­fi­ciently. Be­cause they are es­sen­tially self-starters, many mil­len­ni­als strug­gle to work ef­fi­ciently in teams; they see the team as some­how lim­it­ing and bind­ing them, hold­ing them back. Lead­er­ship can help cre­ate teams that re­ally do work to­gether, cre­at­ing syn­ergy rather than group think­ing, gen­er­at­ing en­ergy rather than so­cial loaf­ing.

There is a (prob­a­bly apoc­ryphal) story of a Ro­man sen­a­tor who looked out of his win­dow to see a mob of peo­ple rush­ing past. Im­me­di­ately, he donned his toga and ran out of the house af­ter them. “Where are you go­ing, sen­a­tor?” some­one asked him. “There go my peo­ple,” he replied, point­ing to the mob. “I must go af­ter them, so I can find out where they want me to lead them.” As lead­ers of mil­len­ni­als, that is pre­cisely where we are to do. We must fol­low our peo­ple, find out what they want and learn where they want to go. Then, we help them get there. As lead­ers, that is our pri­mary func­tion.

guides and coun­selors

But lead­ers can play an­other role, too. One thing mil­len­ni­als of­ten lack—though as I say, they do not al­ways re­al­ize they lack it—is ex­pe­ri­ence. They have not spent decades at the coal face, learn­ing through their own mis­takes and those of oth­ers that the world does not al­ways work the way we want it to. Their en­thu­si­asm can lead them to rush into things, with­out con­sid­er­ing the law of un­in­tended con­se­quences.

Mil­len­ni­als have great abil­ity, but they need sup­port­ers, coaches, and men­tors who can help them shape their think­ing and see the world more clearly. I have taught mil­len­ni­als at busi­ness schools for a num­ber of years, and if they have a weak­ness, it is the ten­dency to­wards wish­ful think­ing. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if the world worked this way?’ can easily turn into ‘this is how the world re­ally does work.’ Help­ing them to an­a­lyze the world around them more clearly and dis­pas­sion­ately and then chart a re­al­is­tic course for­ward can be very valu­able, for them and for those who work with them. This means help­ing with things like fun­da­men­tal eco­nomic anal­y­sis, prac­ti­cal ap­proaches to strat­egy, re­al­is­tic risk man­age­ment, un­der­stand­ing cus­tomer be­hav­ior, and an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the grey ar­eas and para­doxes in­her­ent in ethics. A lot of knowl­edge of th­ese is­sues comes with ex­pe­ri­ence, and that is some­thing lead­ers can share with their mil­len­ni­als.

Some­times, too sur­pris­ingly for all their out­ward as­sur­ance, mil­len­ni­als lack in­ner con­fi­dence. It only needs quite a mild set­back to swing them from in­fec­tious, op­ti­mistic en­thu­si­asm to gloom and doom, ready to turn away and aban­don an other­wise promis­ing project be­cause they now be­lieve it will never work. They have not yet learned to look both tri­umph and disas­ter in the face, and treat them both the same. Re­build­ing con­fi­dence and en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to carry on is im­por­tant. Very few strate­gies ever roll out with­out some kind of cri­sis emerg­ing along the way—as Moltke said, “No plan sur­vives con­tact with the en­emy”—and get­ting used to this and be­com­ing men­tally ag­ile enough to adapt and shift in

We must fol­low our peo­ple, find out what they want and learn where they want to go. Then, we help them get there. As lead­ers, that is our pri­mary func­tion.

the face of cir­cum­stances is vi­tal. So too is the abil­ity to learn from mis­takes and fail­ures. Pro­grammes like Tata’s ‘Dare to Try’, which re­wards peo­ple who have not been suc­cess­ful but are think­ing along the right lines, are very im­por­tant and should be adopted more widely.

Good lead­ers are also good coaches; that is noth­ing new. But with mil­len­ni­als, that coach­ing and men­tor­ing role be­comes even more im­por­tant. Youth and en­thu­si­asm, as some­one once said, will never be a match for old age and guile. As lead­ers, we can use our ex­pe­ri­ence and guile to help guide and chan­nel that youth­ful ex­u­ber­ance and help it reach its goals.

the shar­ing of vi­sion

Which is all very well; but what about the goals of the or­ga­ni­za­tion? Ev­ery busi­ness has a pur­pose, to serve cus­tomers, cre­ate value and in the process, re­turn value to share­hold­ers. How do we do this when ev­ery­one is ap­par­ently go­ing their own way?

As John Kot­ter and other lead­er­ship schol­ars have pointed out, part of the func­tion of the leader is to pro­vide and share a uni­fied, guid­ing vi­sion for the or­ga­ni­za­tion. That is true, but when work­ing with mil­len­ni­als, we need to think again about what we mean by ‘vi­sion’ and how that vi­sion is cre­ated. The tra­di­tional way of look­ing at lead­er­ship is that lead­ers lead and fol­low­ers fol­low. That no longer works with mil­len­ni­als. As we have al­ready noted, mil­len­ni­als have their own vi­sion. The key now is to bring peo­ple to­gether and help them ne­go­ti­ate and agree a com­mon vi­sion that they can all share. Rather than im­pos­ing his own vi­sion on the group and ex­pect­ing them to fol­low, the leader fa­cil­i­tates that com­mon vi­sion and sup­ports it.

An ex­am­ple of a firm that does this is the op­tics maker Carl Zeiss Jena. Founded in the Ger­man city of Jena in the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury, Carl Zeiss was, for nearly a hun­dred years, the world’s lead­ing maker of op­ti­cal equip­ment, ev­ery­thing from pre­ci­sion sci­en­tific in­stru­ments to cam­eras and binoc­u­lars. The firm’s manag­ing di­rec­tor, Ernst Abbé, re­cruited top sci­en­tists from the Univer­sity of Jena to come and work as project man­agers. Abbé gave his teams com­plete free­dom to do what­ever they liked, and they re­sponded by com­ing up with cut­ting-edge prod­ucts that gave Carl Zeiss a long lead over its com­peti­tors.

Two fac­tors led to Carl Zeiss’s suc­cess. First, Abbé only re­cruited peo­ple who he knew would share the firm’s vi­sion and work to­wards it. Peo­ple who wanted to join the firm for purely self­ish rea­sons, to ad­vance their own ca­reers, were turned away. A pas­sion for in­no­va­tion for its own sake was the first and fore­most re­quire­ment. Thus, ev­ery­one who joined the firm was pre­pared to buy into its vi­sion and work with oth­ers to share it. Sec­ond, although Abbé him­self was an em­i­nent physi­cist, he re­al­ized that his work­ers were ex­perts in their own fields. They knew best what needed to be done. He stepped back, pro­vided them with the fa­cil­i­ties they needed to do their work, and let them get on with it.

Th­ese peo­ple, of course, were not mil­len­ni­als. Part of the chal­lenge of lead­ing mil­len­ni­als is that it forces us to step back and take a long hard look at how we lead and what lead­er­ship re­ally is. Maybe the real value in lead­ing mil­len­ni­als is that we now be­gin to un­der­stand how we should lead, not just mil­len­ni­als but ev­ery­one, and how we should have been lead­ing them all along. Guid­ing, coach­ing, sup­port­ing, fa­cil­i­tat­ing; those meth­ods will beat con­fronta­tion and con­trol, ev­ery day of the week. ■

The real value in lead­ing mil­len­ni­als is that we now be­gin to un­der­stand how we should lead, not just mil­len­ni­als but ev­ery­one, and how we should have been lead­ing them all along.

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