From last week’s election coverage in the US to global conversations about the economy, it feels like everyone is asking, “What does this mean in terms of Millennials?” Headlines from the last week declare Why Millennials Won’t Become Corporate Serfs, Why You Shouldn’t Ignore the Millennial Generation and 5 Reasons Millennials Are Going to Save the World (We Hope).
It’s no surprise that with growing focus on Gen Y and its impact on shaping brands’ relationships with consumers, workplace environments and the economy, that contemporary leadership and empowering Millennials was front and center at this year’s World Business Forum. In reflecting on the event and recent headlines, it’s clear that there is a tension between traditional models and emerging trends.
What resonates now in looking back on the two days of discussion from diverse panels of speakers with an audience of 4,000 professionals from across the globe, is that the way we frame conversations about leadership and discuss the goals of Millennials do not always feel totally compatible. And here’s why…
To a speaker, attributes of the ideal leader centered around things like humility, long-term perspective, tenacity. Principles forged and celebrated in my grandparents’ GI Generation, aka “The Greatest Generation,” were called out again and again as the fundamental traits that make a great leader today.
Occasionally more contemporary skills – such as collaboration or improvisation - were cited as necessary in order to deal with the turbulence that comprises our new normal:
“The military has this term VUCA – which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity… Today’s leaders must come up with improvisational ways of achieving their missions amidst turbulence… This requires moving from information to knowledge, from knowledge to understanding, from understanding to wisdom [in order] to make smart choices and walk on the higher path.” -Nancy Koehn, James E. Robison Professor at Harvard Business School
But for the most part, advice and anecdotes were all about traditional values, like “we-over-me” and postponing gratification.
Yet when the topic shifted to Millenials, the managerial and organizational attributes cited as necessary for attracting and retaining them took on a very different tone. Recognizing superstar performance rather than tenure, providing Millenials with new professional experiences every two years (minimum), acknowledging effort even when the result is failure were some of the policies posited as absolute necessities. Even Jack Welch, once famous for automatically chopping the bottom-performing 10 percent of a team, is singing a different tune:
“…screw the annual review systems…give them raises anytime they do something that builds on your stated strategy. It's about creating fun places to work…creating a bubble."
-Jack Welch, author and former Chairman & CEO of GE
After two days of this back and forth - between traditional values born of war and strife years (Leaders) and the attract/reward systems being set up to retain a participation-trophy-generation (Millenials) - the cognitive dissonance became almost maddening. How would the prescribed environments ever possibly work to shape future leaders?
The answer might lie in the other single thing every speaker mentioned: Purpose.
Many organizations have recently come to acknowledge that they are the custodians of social welfare, be it the welfare of their communities, customers, employees, environment, etc. They’ve embraced being involved in a social contract and have decided to vocally and visibly honor that contract.
Purpose need not be that high climb in order to have a capital “P.” Roughly defined it can be any common, publicly stated and tenaciously activated goal that involved parties acknowledge they could not achieve without each other. It’s simply about having a goal worth putting your name on and proudly saying, “I helped do that.” And that can be a traditional business goal:
“We must remain humble… We must look around and ask, ‘Who is better than us?’ Management’s job is to identify gaps [in company performance] and identify how to close the gap… [We do this by prioritizing] alignment over consensus… and creating employees who are a long-term, five or ten year, bunch of owners versus a short-term, selfish bunch of professionals.”
-Carlos Brito, CEO of Anheuser-Busch InBev
If, as Jeb Bush shared, Purpose bigger than individual recognition, and in the interest of the greater social good, was able to bridge the ideological conflict between Tip and Ronald, perhaps it's strong enough to guide all parties within corporations over this generational chasm. At least for a long enough period of time that the younger generation can start to shape the ideal future leadership qualities, in a way that is more resonant with contemporary experiences and expectations. Qualities that might give rise to a new Greatest Generation.
Christina Stanfield is Senior Director, Strategy for Interbrand New York.