This time it’s serious
You remember it; I remember it. The Generation Game. The whole idea was to get teams of family members to make utter fools of themselves in front of the camera and win prizes.
It was part of our culture, back then. But back then was the ‘70s, fifty years ago. Younger readers will remember its revival in the ‘90s, but even that was thirty years ago. More than a whole generation.
In those days, leadership looked easy. You hired people to do a job, they worked for you. You told them what you wanted;if they did well, they could stay; if not, they were fired.
Was that where the dreadful term Human Resources came from? Human beings sounding like little more than a commodity.
After a few years, you might promote them – ‘if they kept their nose clean’ – but, in the meantime, they were expected to just get on with their work. The bosses made the decisions because they knew better. The human resources, in the immortal words of Blackadder’s Baldrick, needed to ‘know their place’.
Respect with a fair sprinkling of fear. Authoritarian leadership.
By and large, people stayed in the same (dreary) job for years and years. Many took huge pride in their work but for most there was no job satisfaction, no true motivation. Clock in, clock off. Take the money at the end of the work. “At least it’s a job,” they would say. And yet, though nobody seemed to notice in those days, the UK’s productivity level was pretty poor.
Does all that ring a bell? Could that have been you? Your parents?
Now, scroll forward to today. You are thirty years older, in some cases fifty. You have a career, you are running a business, people work for you, just like the old days but, amazingly, times have changed.
The young people who come to you for an interview are not what they used to be.
They are frighteningly mature, bright, articulate, tech savvy, better educated, ambitious, self-assured, full of ideas. They know where they are going in life, and you have a sneaking feeling that, if you offered them a job, working for you could be just a step towards that goal, then they will move on.
The academics call those born 1981–1996 Gen (Generation) Y or Millennials and those born 1997-2012 Gen Z. They, like it or not, are your future. They are different from you but really not that much different. They are asking you to give them the chance to fulfil the potential that lies within every one of us.
Millennials, in particular, grew up watching their parents trudge off to work each day. The conversation round the family supper table rarely included the word ‘prospects’.
So, is it any wonder that these people are so determined not to be lured into the same trap?
They are young, they have a lot to learn but they want to be treated with respect.
They are looking for the chance to grow, to acquire skills, to be offered responsibility, to be trusted to get on with the job, to use their own judgement.
They know will make mistakes, but when they do, they need to feel they are in a safe space where they can talk about them and learn, rather than a blame/punishment culture.
Given the chance to stretch their legs, these people could one day be key to your company’s future.
All they need is the right kind of leadership, which is where you come in.
Millennials are our and your future. Are you going to ask them to adapt to you or will you adapt to them?
Leading Millennials and Gen Z
When we talk about ‘leadership styles’, we usually mean the shorthand that those who study and write about leadership use to badge different ways of leading. As with most fields of research. there are almost as many theories as there are academics.
Most of them, like Autocratic, Charismatic, Servant, Transformational, and Transactional leadership, have been around for decades which, at first sight, would appear to be logical as people don’t change much, do they, and there are plenty of examples of successful leaders in each category:
- Autocratic / hierarchical – the boss knows best, lays down all the rules and makes all the decisions. Orders are orders. The military (under fire) …
- Charismatic – a hero culture, loyalty to one person/personality. Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela, Richard Branson.
- Servant – quietly working away to create an environment and a culture that meets the needs of the team. Mahatma Ghandi.
- Transformational – recognising there is always a better way; providing opportunities for everyone to explore different ideas and approaches. Bill Gates, Elon Musk.
- Transactional – a focus on getting the job done accurately, on time and to budget. Right first time. The entire Amazon culture.
More recently, concepts such as Authentic leadership, Complex Adaptive leadership and Distributed leadership have emerged to reflect the need to adjust to the myriad societal and technological changes and the evolving expectations of employees, customers and society.
Inevitably, some of them overlap so, before you begin to align yourself with one or more style, the first thing to say is that there is no such thing as the Best style.
Each of us will have observed triumphs and disasters which we, conveniently but often unfairly, attribute to the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ style of leadership. We do so ignoring such key factors as the type of organisation, its history, the external environment, the nature of the challenge, the personality of the leader. Plus, a fair dose of luck, or bad luck.
Today however, we are concerned solely with Generation Z and the Millennials, how to hire them and keep them, how to win their loyalty, how to benefit from their energy, what we can learn from them.
Excuse me – did you say we can learn from them? Surely, many of these are kids, fresh out of education, faces glued to their phones, still living with Dad and Mum: they are the ones with lots to learn, not us.
True but hear me out, please. The UK education system, for all its shortcomings, is very good, in fact a good deal more productive than when we were there.
These ‘kids’ have lived through, and adapted to, the most extraordinary advances and upheavals in communication, technology, scientific discovery, consumer behaviour, not to mention artificial intelligence, climate change and a global pandemic.
The changes have piled in at a such a pace that, the younger you are, the faster you are able to adapt while we older folk, with great respect, struggle to keep up. That certainly includes me, and I suspect, it includes most of you.
For all their professed self-confidence, Millennials and Gen Z have been severely shaken by the pandemic, by all the gloomy forecasts of soaring inflation, recession, and job losses.
Record numbers of school leavers have opted to go to university in the hope that, in three years’ time, their chances of finding a good job will be higher. Clear evidence of their nervousness. Even recent graduates are opting to stay on and study a post-graduate course.
Gone are the days when a decent degree was a sure-fire ticket to a well-paid post in junior management, by-passing getting your hands dirty. Employers, so we are told, would far rather take on someone with experience who will start paying their way from day one.
But I would argue that the best time to invest in your company’s future is now. As we emerge, older but wiser, thrusting aside the horrors of Pandemia, there is a freshness about the world, a spring in the step and that means one thing – opportunity.
The future you are working on now will be made to happen largely by Millennials or Generation Z. You need them on board now.
First, we need to clear the decks.
- Leading Millennials and Gen Z – out with the old…
Times have changed, people have changed, their expectations have changed, so leadership must reflect those changes. We need to look hard at old favourites and wish some of them a happy retirement.
The prime candidates for the chop are:
- Autocratic leadership. An all-powerful boss, supported by intimidating lieutenants, each with the power of life and death. Fine in a real crisis but stifling for the underlings.
- Hierarchical leadership. Promotion and authority/supremacy are far too often determined by length of service, rank, age, or appointed job title. How often have I seen the top sales exec appointed as sales director, only to find that he or she is useless at managing people and they realise they have taken their top earner of the road?
- Charismatic leadership. The power of personality. Inspiring but with a tendency to be self-serving, believing their own rhetoric. Millennials will be unlikely to be taken in by their charm.
- While we are at it, let’s have a thorough blitz on those working practices that everyone but your longest-serving staff think are a total waste of time and energy. Starting with the internal email that would be twice as effective if you popped round the corner for a polite word. Followed by silly, bossy rules, dress codes, reports that nobody will read… (over to you).
- … and in with the geese?
Post-Covid, we keep saying that things will never be the same again but, in truth all human beings hate change. Any change management specialist would agree with you on that, with one valuable proviso.
We all hate change unless we are directly involved in shaping that change.
Which, right now, is the best argument I can make for what has become known as Authentic Leadership.
Some of you may be familiar with the ‘Goose’ analogy. I will summarise.
- Flocks of geese fly in a V formation because the air disrupted by each pair of wings gives those behind a lift, saving the entire group huge amounts of energy.
- Flying at the front of the V is harder work so, as the leading goose starts to tire, another takes the lead, and the others pull the tiring one along.
- If one goose becomes ill, two other geese will take up station alongside, helping their colleague keep up with the group.
- As they fly, all the geese honk loudly, an encouraging fan-base to each other.
Each of these points has a direct connection to the concept of Authentic leadership – single-minded teamwork, shared leadership, support for the weaker members, and morale-boosting team spirit.
Authentic leaders, as the name implies, present themselves exactly as they are, using their genuine personality, with no false bravado, no bull, and with a deep sense of purpose.
What do we mean by Purpose? How does that differ from Vision?
Purpose = Where are we going?
Vision = What are we creating to get there?
Authentic leaders acknowledge their own character faults but are determined to make a difference. They are self-aware with a strong sense of responsibility, sometimes at personal risk to themselves.
Why are Authentics emerging so strongly now? We are all far better educated and conscious of the deep-seated challenges we face. We abhor cruelty and greed, extravagance, inequality, abuse, violence. The pandemic has made us all far more aware of the need to respect others’ safety and privacy and that those values are just as relevant to our business life as to our private world.
Climate change is serious; recycling is more than a gesture, it’s part of our culture now.
The point here is that this is what people expect of us.
If it’s no longer cool to flash the cash, to con someone out of an extra few quid, to drive too fast, to whistle at women, then honesty, trust and respect should surely be in the DNA of your firm’s culture, both internal and public.
Who says so? The Millennials and Gen Z do. You are being watched. They are looking for an environment that matches their values, their expectations, the cheeky devils.
Being younger, they are unlikely to challenge their leaders face-to-face, but you can be sure they are silently asking those challenging questions. And guess what, they have every right to do so.
10 questions – Would you and your fellow managers pass the Millennial/Z test?
It’s time to own up. Here are the kind of questions that your next high-potential, younger recruit will silently, or perhaps out loud, be asking. Remember, this is the sort of man or woman that you, and your competitors, would give their eye teeth to hire. One more time – they are your future.
Now you are invited to grade yourself and your senior management team, on a scale of 1 to 10:
Q1 Are all the people who run the business genuine, honest, unselfish, consistent, ethical, committed to growth and providing growth opportunities for every member of the team?
Q2 Does every member of the team trust them?
Q3 Do they all set an example? Does their behaviour reflect the company’s values?
Q4 Do they trust their staff, talk regularly to them, praising good work and encouraging them to point out areas for improvement?
Q5 Do your customers and suppliers trust them?
Q6 Do they actively work on these relationships?
Q7 Do they genuinely see the business as a contributing part of the wider community? Note for reference: the community is not other people, it’s where your staff and their family, their friends and their neighbours live.
Q8 Do they acknowledge their own shortcomings or try to bluff their way through life?
Q9 Are they constantly looking for the next development and thinking about who might lead that work?
Q10 Is each of them investing time in their own leadership development?
How did you do? Were you honest with your answers? If not, scrub the score, start again, with a 5-point penalty for wasting your own time.
Nobody’s perfect so, if you scored higher than 55 out of 100, you are heading in the right direction, and you can now focus on the important areas where change is needed. Where you and your fellow leaders need to change your ways.
A word about Question 9. Any organisation that is not actively moving forward is, by definition, slipping backwards. Your market is in a state of continual change – new competitors, new technology, new customers, new products.
Each of your major competitors is trying new ways to attract business. They are talking to your clients with tempting offers, doing whatever it takes to lure them away from you. One of the golden rules of business is that one day, sooner or later, each of your current clients will move on. Your task as leader is to manage that relationship in such a way that they stay with you for as long as possible.
Which brings us back to Trust.
Every business is a people business
When you strip away the outer skin and the fine words, at its heart Authentic leadership is built on trust. As in any relationship, it takes hard work, constant attention, patience, flexibility, and time to win someone’s trust.
If we ever give them a reason to question that trust, we are in trouble.
If you betray that trust, it’s gone forever. Which I don’t have to tell you, is just as true in business as in any other part of your life.
Leading an organization has never been more complex than it is today. The options available to do what you do faster, more accurately, more efficiently, more profitably, at the same time as meeting the expectations of each of your stakeholders, are mind-boggling. Will AI help?
When we look at recent advances in artificial intelligence, it would be so easy to envisage a world, and millions of businesses, where human involvement is reduced to that of a spectator, relieved of any responsibility for everyday tasks, and gloriously free to spend all that extra time doing… what?
Doing what only human beings will ever be able to do. And without which, the greatest technological advances will never reach their potential.
Creating winning relationships, which is what we call Leadership. Relationships built on Trust. That’s what.
And using our amazing untapped reserves of creativity.
People will still work with people. People will still buy from people. People will still fall out with people. And people will need to fulfil their potential.
Millennials and Gen Z know this. They are excited by it.
Our incredibly exciting challenge is to stand by them, to encourage them, to nudge them back on course, as they take up the reins.