Defining the Gen Y Leader

Tanya Shields, a 35-year-old employee at professional services firm EY — formerly known as Ernst & Young — is a shining example of the cliched Gen Y worker.

Like others in her generation — defined roughly as those born between the late 1970s and the early 2000s — Shields expresses an innate connection with technology, exudes a natural predilection for diversity and inclusion, and views collaboration and transparency as core pillars of organizational efficiency.

“Technology is something I don’t think twice about,” Shields said, “where the generations before me didn’t have that benefit. I also have the benefit of working in a global world … so things like diversity, cultural training and understanding are also benefits that I have.”

Then there is the aspect of Shields’ job that more and more Gen Y’s are beginning to attain: her management title. As a senior manager at EY, she is part of a growing cohort of Gen Y who are beginning to take on authoritative roles.

The pace of the development is inexorable. According to a September 2013 survey by EY, 87 percent of Gen Y managers said they took on their management roles between 2008 and 2013, vs. 38 percent of Gen X and 19 percent of baby boomer managers. With Gen Y expected to make up as much as half of the global workforce by 2020, it is inevitable that the percentage of Gen Y in leadership positions will keep growing.

Building a Leadership Profile
The implications for learning leaders are many-sided. Many learning practitioners have just started to get used to Gen Y in terms of onboarding and other entry-level training programs. Now they’re tasked to shift efforts toward how this generation’s perceived work style will translate to future leadership potential and, as a result, the types of leadership programs practitioners need to design.

Just as in their development as employees, the characteristics millennials are likely to embrace as leaders or managers stem from the world they were brought up in as young professionals.

Because the bulk of them graduated from college amid the worst economic crisis in a generation — and, as a result, may have struggled to find that first job in their desired career — Gen Y is likely to be more skeptical of the established order. Many millennials spent their early careers unemployed or underemployed as corporate layoffs and halted hiring plans delayed their ambitions. Likewise, as they struggled to advance their own early careers, many Gen Y’s watched their parents lose their jobs during the recession.

This backdrop means Gen Y is poised to be more experimental as leaders, said Samantha Howland, senior managing partner at Decisions Strategies International Inc., a leadership development firm.

Part of this experimentation will come via quicker decision-making by gathering consensus across functions and networks within their organizations, instead of the traditional top-down approach.

“I think they’re going to be more willing to experiment,” Howland said. “I think they’re going to challenge what came before them.”

Mara Swan, executive vice president of global strategy at human resources consultancy ManpowerGroup, said Gen Y’s perceived skepticism toward traditional corporate structures should make them more democratic in their approach as leaders. Dropping command-and-control leadership models in favor of more collaborative, collective organizational reporting orders is likely to be a defining hallmark.

“It’s going to be much more horizontal,” Swan said. “They don’t think of power as being something to warrant; they think about sharing it.”

Further, because Gen Y grew up in a more diverse environment, the generation is poised to be naturally accepting of diversity as part of its management philosophy.

Joan Massola, an HR manager at AT&T University, said Gen Y’s acceptance of diversity doesn’t end there. Because of their collaborative nature, she said Gen Y has already shown a desire for diversity of opinion and information, tapping a variety of different sources when making management decisions.

“Treating everyone equally is a big part of the way they manage,” Massola said.

Kyle Johnson, founder and CEO of Bixy, an online advertising company, said because millennials need to find intense meaning and passion in their work, they are more likely to inherit entrepreneurial qualities as leaders — in some instances, starting their own companies altogether.

Johnson, 31, left his consulting job at Accenture in September 2010 to start his own company. “I think what Gen Y realizes is, ‘I can do this, so screw it,’” Johnson said. “I’m going to give up my good job and I’m going to go chase a dream.”

But not all millennials find themselves sitting pretty in their day jobs. This heightens their sense of risk-taking as entrepreneurs because they feel they have nothing to lose, said Steve Dalton, senior associate director in the Career Management Center at Duke University.

“The upside isn’t as great as it was for my generation [Gen X] and especially for my parents’ generation,” he said, referring to Gen Y’s willingness to stick with a big corporate career. This leads many millennials to start side projects or, like Johnson, to quit altogether and start their own companies.

Still, not everyone thinks Gen Y brings unique leadership traits to the table. Jennifer Deal, senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, said leadership traits are more likely to be defined by an organization’s culture, not the age or generation of individual leaders. For instance, if a millennial leader is working up the chain of command at a company with a deep culture of top-down, command-and-control-style leadership, even the most collaborative of people will eventually be forced to adopt that style.

“The position trumps the generation people are a part of,” Deal said, adding that she hasn’t seen any data that would suggest otherwise.

When asked if Gen Y brings anything new to the table when it comes to their ability to work or lead, Deal said: “They may be more likely to use technology, maybe, but the issue is that the organizational norms generally constrain behavior, so to move up in the organization, you have to adapt to what the organization prefers. … You might expand out beyond what other leaders are doing, but you still have to meet all of the expectations of the people that are already running the place.”

That is, until Gen Y is running the place, said Duke University’s Dalton. “I think eventually they’ll take over,” he said in response to Deal’s counterargument.

His reasoning: the financial incentive — promotion rate, bonuses, year-to-year salary increases — to be a good soldier is not what it used to be in big corporations. As a result, millennials will feel less inclined to fundamentally change who they are to advance to positions of higher power.

To be sure, Dalton said that once more-lucrative financial incentives return as the economy picks up, there is a chance culture will override millennials’ leadership tendencies and prompt them to something more command-and-control oriented — that is, if that is the culture of the company.

However, he also said that because companies have put less emphasis on training these last few years, Gen Y is more likely to experiment and find new ways of doing things.

“I don’t just think there’s the training and infrastructure in place to mold them in management’s own image,” Dalton said.

Developing New Leaders
To alter leadership development programs for Gen Y, learning should be more on-the-job specific and available at the time of need, instead of formal event-style training programs in a classroom.

“We have to stop one-way learning,” said ManpowerGroup’s Swan. “You have to talk about what you want them to do, and you have to let them experience it and teach each other. The instructor has to move from an instructor to a facilitator of learning, and it has to be very experiential. I also think learning has to be tied to the purpose of the company vs. the task you’re trying to teach.”

Design Strategies International’s Howland said learning leaders should aim to reach Gen Y with leadership development programs more flexibly and in regular, bite-size doses. “I think they learn faster in regular doses because they’ll see the learning as part of the work,” she said. “That’s a huge opportunity for learning leaders.”

Duke’s Dalton said he foresees Gen Y making a strong push toward mentoring as a development tool of their own once they become leaders. Therefore, current learning leaders would be wise to install the medium into Gen Y leadership development plans.

Dalton also said he thinks Gen Y leaders will reignite a focus on training and mentorship as they rise — things they didn’t necessarily have as they entered the workforce, because training was among the first items cut from corporate budgets during the recession.

“They will be the ones that reassert the importance of training because they know it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “And they don’t have the same kind of golden handcuff incentive to keep training out that current managers do.”