The Art of Leading Millennials & Gen Z

LS International

Remember telling college and high school students “You are the leaders of tomorrow” or words to that effect? Well, guess what? The “tomorrow” we spoke about then is now here! Millennials and members of Gen Z are already part of the workforce, working with Gen Y, Gen X and Baby Boomers. Multi-generation workplaces are not new; however, what is different this time is the quantum of difference that exists between Gen Z and even the immediate preceding generation, the Millennials.

These differences are primarily the outcome of the socio-economic conditions in which so many members of Gen Z were raised. Therefore, Gen Z and Millennials born after say 1995 are seen to have attitudes, values and priorities that are quite different from those of the previous generations. Corporate managers and leaders who appreciate these differences will be better-equipped to understand what motivates Gen Z, in turn helping them to make better decisions around selection, training and performance management.

While it is useful to understand what some of these differences are, it is important to keep in mind that any sort of generalisation is fraught with risk. Being truly “Digital Natives”, Gen Z expects “immediacy”- much like their expectation of instant high-speed wi fi access. In one survey, an astounding 40 percent of Gen Z reportedly ranked wi fi access as higher than working bathrooms! Early exposure to video calls on Skype, Google Duo or Whatsapp makes Gen Z arguably better at walking the fine line between synchronous and asynchronous methods of digital communication.

Managers and Leaders are expected to mentor and guide their direct reports, but with Gen Z the approach needs to be different. Gen Z can be influenced more effectively through inspiration and expertise not as much by pulling rank or throwing hierarchy at them. Gen Z is used to obtaining loads of information off the internet- so what they need is help to understand the context in which they are being asked to do certain things. They won’t shy away from asking questions- and their curiosity must be satisfied. As Ms. Montse Passolas, Vice President of Global Marketing, Rimmel and Manhattan – ‎Coty, said to me in a recent conversation, “You have to of course, guide them (Gen Z) in their professional development, but also nourish them in their curiosity, and in the way they relate to the world and to their peers and to their families and to the work life environment”.

Gen Z also tends to think and act more entrepreneurial than previous generations. This is probably because of the start-up boom that this generation has seen over the past decade, creating so many big names that they have grown up with (Snapchat, Instagram, Netflix etc.). Those managing Gen Z employees and teams can derive significant “diversity dividend” by channelling their thinking to help teams and organizations break the mould and drive innovation. As Ms, Passolas pointed out about the young generation (Gen Z), “… they don’t find something they will do themselves”.

To me, there are certain other qualities too that are important indicators of leadership potential- and these transcend generations. The most important among them are passion and compassion. Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace laureate is not yet 21 years old. She survived being shot in the head by the Taliban, and after recovering, has been tirelessly working for the cause of education of girls. Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba is another stellar example. Born and raised in China, Ma was passionate about learning English. It is said that he offered free tours to foreigners to learn English. A member of Gen X, he surmounted rejection on numerous occasions and is today among the world’s most successful business leaders.

Unalloyed joy at the success of their people/teams is another hallmark of leaders. My dad is a professional basketball coach, so I grew up watching a lot of basketball. I have seen how he handled players- both through victory and defeat- and built resilience. In turn, I saw how they simply adored him, and would try their hardest to win- for him. Isn’t that exactly how corporate leadership works too? Or at least, should?

To be honest, not everyone will have the leadership spark- even in Gen Z. So what can Gen X or Gen Y managers do to identify Gen Z employees with leadership potential? I would say that in order to spot high potential Gen Z employees, watch how they carry themselves- their self-confidence, their willingness to take responsibility, their ability to unhesitatingly acknowledge that they do not know something and above all, the air of reliability around them that screams “you can count on me”. As Ms. Passolas observed, “So, I think for me the leaders had this conviction, self-confidence without being cocky, and creation of trust”.