From Boss to Partner: The Changing Landscape of Leadership

Image by Luca Zanon

As of this year, Millennials (born roughly between 1981 and 1996) are the largest generation in the workforce. With the growing leadership and workforce gaps created by the retirement of Baby Boomers, organizations must prioritize the recruitment and retention of Millennials. However, recruiting and retaining Millennials is no small feat. Millennials have specific and unique job needs, and if they are not getting any traction, they are quick to find another hill to climb. This means that employers and managers must make greater efforts to retain them, and this starts with the supervisor-direct report relationship.

This relationship is more successful when the supervisor’s leadership style is tailored to the needs and preferences of the direct report, which presents particularly challenging issues when managers lead in a vastly different way than those they manage. With the current generational configuration of the workforce, this challenge is fairly common.

Generational Leadership Traits: Varying Views of the Terrain

Traditionalists (born between 1928 and 1945) and Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) tend towards a very autocratic, hierarchical leadership style, with the boss calling the shots and the subordinates following the directives. They see an organization’s leadership as being at the top of a mountain, having the greatest visibility of the terrain and thus the most information and knowledge useful in deciding what is best for the organization.

Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1980) takes a slightly flatter, more participatory approach to leadership, seeing themselves as coaches to their direct reports. Their preference for individualism allows them to consider the unique attributes an individual may bring to solving a problem, yet they subscribe to the notion that one must work hard and pay their dues in order to scale their way up the organization.

Millennials’ leadership style is that of partnership with full and active participation of each team member. They acknowledge that someone at the bottom of the organization may have better tools to more quickly ascend, and they also understand that there is great value in the unique perspectives of those at all different levels of the organization. They view themselves as partners with their direct reports in the success of the organization and in the fulfillment of each member of that organization. This is how they lead, and this is how they expect to be led. It is therefore imperative that supervisors approach their relationships with their Millennial team members as partnerships.

The Flattening of Leadership Style: Complementary Contributions

What Employers Give

The idea of subordinate as partner is revolutionary to Traditionalists, Boomers, and Gen Xers and implicates for them a high risk-high reward situation. Employers must provide an unprecedented level of transparency and communication, entrusting all employees with knowledge of the challenges and successes of the organization (the view from the top). This involves divesting supervisors of some of their power and handing that over to direct reports. The predominance of 360 degree performance reviews and (at an extreme end of the spectrum) the advent of holacracy à la Zappos are signs of the times. These signs consistently point to asking all employees for their ideas and input, even when management is skeptical about what employees, particularly the less experienced Millennials, have to offer.

What Employers Get

The truth is that Millennials have a lot to offer, and this is where the high reward part comes in. As digital natives, Millennials have had access to all sorts of information from the time they learned to type on a keyboard. If they had a question about an area foreign to them, they could (and would) find an answer within minutes. Their knowledge base is broad — much broader than that of the Boomers and Gen Xers upon entry into workforce — as well as deep, as they are the most educated generation in history. Also, their research skills are unrivaled, enabling them to acquire knowledge in unfamiliar areas much faster than previous generations could.

On top of their knowledge-base and easy access to information, they also have swagger: They know they have vast amounts of information in their heads and at their fingertips. All the childhood awards they received that Gen Xers and Boomers complain have made them entitled and arrogant, actually built their confidence to take risks and share their ideas. Boomers created the box, Xers worked hard to think outside of its borders, and Millennials just blow the box to bits. It is no coincidence that today’s tech boom (pun intended) is run, in large part, by Millennials. They are innovators who, by believing they can start and run a company without any real experience, actually do it! Studies indicate that Millennials founded close to 160,000 start-ups each month of 2011, and more than 25% of Millennials were self-employed by 2012. Yet, in many organizations run by older generations, Millennials remain an untapped resource.

It is time to tap that resource by seeing Millennial employees as partners and engaging them in problem-solving at all levels of the organization. Organizations should do this not to merely make Millennials feel important. Organizations should do this because Millennials actually are very important. Not only are they the generation that will fill the workforce and leadership gap, but they are the generation that will keep an organization’s goods and services relevant in a time when innovation occurs at lightning speed.

Expanding the Horizon

The beauty of partnership is that it requires each member to contribute for the betterment of the whole. This means that older generations should open themselves to Millennials’ leadership styles, thereby better engaging them. But this also means older generations should share their own unique leadership strengths to empower Millennials to work more effectively inter-generationally.

The landscape of organizational management has changed, flattening to allow for greater communication and collaboration between those in the base camps of their careers and those at the peaks of leadership. Organizations must expand their management practices to the more inclusive view Millennials have of leadership: A relationship of partnership, in which all partners contribute something unique to lift each other, themselves, and their organizations.

Neha Sampat is a Gen Xer with over a decade of experience working with Millennial students and colleagues of varying generations. She is the founder of GenLead, through which she coaches, writes, and consults in leadership development, professional development, and diversity, with a particular focus on inter-generational diversity. Find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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