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Will Millennial Leadership Change the Way We Work?

By Rich Wellins, Ph.D. and Rebecca Ray, Ph.D.

If you are a gambler, you could place multiple bets on the demographic composition of our future leaders. You could bet that global U.S. corporations will be run by a greater number of Chinese leaders. Or that people of color will rise to the top in greater numbers. Or that C-suites will have far greater female representation.

There is, however, one bet you could place you would be certain to win. In the not-too-distant future, those calling the shots will hail from one generation: Millennials. With the oldest of the generation now in their mid-thirties, Millennial leadership is fast approaching.

As they barrel on toward the C-suite, will Millennials’ leadership style be a radical change in the way we work? Or are Millennial leadership styles and values more traditional than they seem?

To find out the answer, Ron Williams, former CEO of Aetna and now the head of his own consulting company, RW2 Enterprises, asked The Conference Board to commission a unique piece of research comparing Millennial leaders to older generations of leaders and to current CEOs. The Conference Board, in turn, asked DDI to join them in the research effort. The Conference Board published findings of this research in a report, Divergent Views/Common Ground: The Leadership Perspectives of C-Suite Executives and Millennial Leaders.

Many of the findings refute the conventional wisdom and sometimes-negative stereotypes about Millennials. Let’s explore a few of them:

Myth #1: Millennial leaders have little organizational loyalty.

Reality: Millennials are, in fact, incredibly loyal. Nearly 44 percent plan to stay at their current companies for more than 15 years, compared to just 29 percent of leaders from other generations who plan to stay that long. Meanwhile, 14 percent of Millennial leaders intend to stay three to four years while only 11 percent of non-Millennial leaders plan for a similarly lengthy tenure.

One reason for their loyalty is that younger leaders are highly engaged with their leadership roles. When asked about their level of agreement with the statement “I am engaged with my role as a leader in this organization,” on a four-point scale (1 being “definitely false,” 4 being “definitely true”), Millennials rate their own level of engagement at 3.70. This is comparable to the 3.75 average response provided by older leaders.

Of course, this loyalty and engagement doesn’t come without strings attached. Over and over during the interviews, we heard that Millennial leaders are hungry for growth (see figure below) and expect to move up the ladder. If this doesn’t happen, retention will falter.

Millennial leaders' expected transition time by level

Myth #2: Millennial leaders will learn to lead in a fundamentally different way.

Reality: Just as leaders have for decades, Millennials believe developmental assignments are the most effective way to learn. Younger leaders also value coaching, both from their managers and from internal coaches/mentors.

Surprisingly, however, they rank relatively new modes of formal learning (social, online, mobile) near the bottom for effectiveness, showing no more hunger for those forms of development than do older leaders. Smack in the middle of the mix are formal workshops, classroom training courses, and the like—traditional forms of learning whose demise was supposed to be eminent with the rise of digital-based learning. But, the research shows that these forms of learning continue to be used with relatively high frequency and are perceived as effective.

Myth #3: Millennial leaders have far different values than other leaders.

Reality: Yes, Millennials have different values than do their older counterparts and current CEOs, but the differences aren’t as dramatic as you might think. All leaders place the highest value on Ideas, Technology, and Rational Problem Solving. And, it’s encouraging that all generations place a high value on Actively Helping Others and Improving Society.

There also appears to be agreement on the values that are less important. All generations and levels of leaders tend to shun History, Tradition, and Old-Fashion Virtues. They also don’t seem to have big egos. All leaders rate Fame, Visibility, and Publicity at the very bottom.

Two differences are surprising, however. Current CEOs place more of an emphasis on Creative and Artistic Self-expression. On the other hand, CEOs place less value on Business Activities, Money, and Financial Gain.

Myth #4: Millennial leaders want a workplace that is open and fun. They also favor low-hierarchy organizational structure.

Reality: The clichéd depiction of a workplace that appeals to younger workers is one with an open floorplan, perhaps access to snacks and cappuccinos, and very little hierarchy. But the research found that Millennials especially value two things in a workplace far more than “perks”: flexibility and mentoring.

When presented with a list of workplace characteristics and asked to rank them in importance (see graphic below), Millennials didn’t care much about having an open floor plan or an egalitarian organizational structure. Instead, Millennial leaders gave far higher marks to Flexible Policies for Vacation/Work Schedules and Flexible Options for Working Remotely/Collaborating Virtually— the same top two characteristics identified by other leader groups. And, like current CEOs, Millennials see tremendous value in mentorship from senior leaders.

Designing a workplace for Millennials

While it’s incredibly hard to predict one to two decades out, we are encouraged by what our research tells us about Millennial leaders. In them, we have a group of younger leaders who are both loyal and hard-working. They are highly engaged, highly ambitious, and eager to learn. They appear to have a good balance between the need for corporate responsibility and profitability. And, they all will be digital natives, which will put them in a better position to transform their businesses.

As organizations continue to identify and develop this next generation of leaders, it’s safe to assume we will not be starved for great leadership. And, yes, they may be even better leaders than those in top jobs today.

Rich Wellins, Ph.D.Rich Wellins, Ph.D., is senior vice president at DDI and coauthor, with Tacy M. Byham, Ph.D., of Your First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in OthersHe is passionate about helping organizations employ alignment and analytics to realize the potential of their leadership capability.


Rebecca Ray, Ph.D.,Rebecca L Ray, Ph.D., is executive vice president, knowledge organization, for The Conference Board. She is the author of numerous articles and books, including her coauthored works, Measuring Leadership Development (McGraw-Hill, 2012), Measuring the Success of Leadership Development (ATD, 2015), and Measuring the Success of Employee Engagement (ATD, 2016).

This blog is excerpted from the essay Can Today’s Millennial Leaders Become Tomorrow’s Great CEOs? from DDI’s Challenging Thinking Series. Read the entire essay to learn what the experts say about the skills future senior leaders will need and the likelihood of Millennials to step up to those roles.

Posted: 12 May, 2017,

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