Executive leadership is undergoing a dramatic shift in demographics. As more baby boomers and gen-xers retire, millennials are stepping in to fill the void and bringing with them a new perspective on business leadership.
Even if millennial executives sounds like a contradiction in terms — a designation for decades hence, the statistics paint a different picture. Globally, baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, are retiring at the rate of approximately 10,000 a day1. Millennials already hold the majority of management positions, and their number rises with each passing year.
While millennials have a reputation of eschewing traditional hierarchical management structures, especially when compared to previous generations, they aren’t averse to climbing the corporate ladder. According to a 2015 millennial leadership study2 conducted by Virtuali, 91 per cent of millennials in the workplace aspire to leadership positions, and more than half of these millennials are women.
So what does this mean for the future of leadership? How will millennial leadership styles differ from those of previous generations? The following three trends give an indication of what the future might bring:
Flexibility Above All Else
It should come as no surprise that millennials place a higher priority on a flexible workplace than boomers or gen-xers ever did. For the majority of millennials, that goes beyond simple perks like playing foosball in the breakroom or working flex hours. Rather, it signals a desire to work in an environment unburdened by bureaucratic management structures.
The Virtuali3 research found that 83 per cent of millennials would prefer to work for a company with fewer layers of management. American Express conducted a study that found 75 per cent of millennials believe indicated that successful businesses must face volatility with flexible working environments and do away with the rigidity of the past.
The prioritisation of flexibility is further evidenced by the skills millennials aspire to build. A recent Deloitte study found that 46 per cent of millennials4 see flexibility as the most critical employee characteristic for a successful business.
These beliefs likely mean the transition to a more open and fluid leadership style when millennials find themselves in management or executive positions. In other words, the stern task-master might just go the way of the fax machine.
Servant Leadership over Hero CEO
Previous generations worked in hierarchal organisational structures that saw CEOs in an almost superhuman light. Think of industry titans such as Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch, Richard Branson and Steve Jobs — celebrities whose presence is often spoken of in the same way that someone would describe an audience with The Pope.
According to the Virtuali same study, an overwhelming majority of millennials just aren’t looking to build that kind of legacy5. Almost half of those surveyed said the empowerment of others was their primary motivator in seeking leadership positions. Only 10 per cent cited legacy, and perhaps most eye-opening is that only five per cent cited financial gain.
When asked to describe what kind of leader they wanted to be, a full 63 per cent said ‘transformational.’ Their answer indicates a strong desire not only to improve business outcomes but also improve the lives of the people working in that business.
Passion for Purpose
Millennials differ from their older counterparts in that purpose is inextricably tied to job satisfaction. This is a generation that, by and large, is looking for more than a fat pay cheque and a huge corner office.
Just how serious are millennials about purpose? According to Cone Communications Millennial Employee Engagement Study6, 75 per cent of millennials would take a pay cut to work for a socially responsible company, and 76 per cent consider a company’s social and environmental commitments before deciding where to work.
A Deloitte study reported that two-thirds of millennials7 chose their workplace because their purpose aligned with that of the organisation. The same study indicated that only one out of five millennials are satisfied in organisational cultures that lack purpose.
Passion for purpose will follow millennials as they move into leadership roles, and good leadership might look more like inspiring others to work towards a shared goal instead of relying solely on the motivational potential of promotions and perks.
What Lies Ahead
Of course, not all millennials think and act alike, and each will fall somewhere along the spectrum of leadership styles and practices.
And yet, the evidence looks strong: the beliefs that drive millennials will be expressed in the way they lead, and this could mean big changes in how executive and management positions are carried out. What remains to be seen is how this new approach will impact organisations and institutions around the world.