A few weeks ago I found myself in a client’s stark, windowless conference room waiting yet again to interview another unhappy employee. As I waited -- thinking about what I had been learning from these interviews -- it occurred to me that Millennials are more prepared than we think to design and lead successful organizations.
But, how can this be? The well-rehearsed script is that
Millennials are a collection of entitled hipsters waiting to be praised rather than wanting to do any “real” work. I, along with others, am growing tired of the traditional millennial stereotype. To me, the ubiquitous anecdotes obscure some of the more important qualities that “millennially-minded” employees bring to the table, but more on that later.
Related: 'I Am Millennial. Hear Me Roar!'
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That windowless conference room had been my home for three days. We had been interviewing a large number of unhappy employees as part of a culture/leadership audit for an organization that felt like it had been conceived as part of a "Seinfeld" episode. The interviews sounded like a broken record. It was soon evident that everyone knew the same jaw-dropping stories. The complaints were nearly identical. The grievances were so embedded that it felt like they had already been carved into this organization’s tombstone.
Somewhat frustrated, I started to ask these employees what they would do to fix the problems. Most stammered. Others knew exactly who should be fired -- as if that solution would solve everything. Yet, no one had any real ideas on how to fix the underlying problem.
In my view, this organization’s problem was that its leadership style did not support the underlying work that needed to be accomplished. What this organization desperately needed was a participatory style of leadership, similar to what you might see between a staff sergeant and his or her squad. Instead, new leaders within this organization adopted a highly autocratic style. Once they were promoted, they put away their field work and started ordering others around. From what I could tell during my interviews, this authoritarian style was adopted simply because it’s what they had seen every other leader do in the past. Yet, it wasn’t working. Resentment was everywhere.
This tendency to adopt the same style of leadership that was used with us in the past is what I call a “leadership inheritance.” A leadership inheritance will feel comfortable. You are used to how it works. There are no surprises. This comfort level, however, is a bias that can lead you to make a foundational decision that is entirely wrong. Your decision becomes instinctual instead of being thoughtful and deliberate.
This is where being a Millennial is a good thing. It’s been my experience that Millennials are more likely to challenge the status quo, and they are comfortable in stepping back and asking whether something makes sense. This type of critical thinking is precisely what is needed as we make the leap from individual contributor to manager or leader. Each of us might do well to adapt an occasional millennial mindset and challenge our leadership inheritance. For some, they will find they made the right choice. But, others might realize they need to re-think their leadership philosophy.
To challenge one’s leadership inheritance is to ask the following four questions:
1. What leadership style do I want to adopt?
Each of us has preferences and, where possible, it makes sense to choose a leadership style that is appealing. The rationale is that if you like it, you are more likely to fully implement the style and use it on a consistent basis.
2. Which leadership style is suited to my talents?
This is not the same concept as the first question. It is slightly nuanced and is asking you to consider not only what you like, but what style best matches your skill set.
3. What style will be effective the situation?
Not every follower will respond to the same type of leadership style, so this may require you to adapt your approach to the style the matches the employee. Additionally, what works in one situation or environment may not be the type of leadership that works in another. (Hollywood has capitalized on this fact with movies like “Kindergarten Cop,” and “The Pacifier.”)
4. Will the style enhance or diminish objectives?
This question is critical as it keeps you from choosing what you want and, instead, helps you choose a leadership style that improves both your relationships and your businesses.
In grappling with question number four, a leader really needs to take some time and reflect on their actual and ideal operating environment. A leader may also want to consider the following factors:
- Do my people need a lot of attention and feedback?
- Do I have specialized knowledge that my people will need to access?
- Are we customer-focused, safety-focused, quality-focused, efficiency focused, etc.?
- Do I lead people who effectively do what I did before?
- Do I set the vision or do I implement the vision?
- Are my people better matched with a particular leadership style?
- How does the work environment lend itself to one style over another?
Obviously, this list could be much larger, and you will certainly want to create your own list as you study which leadership style is best suited for your needs. Ultimately, if you get this issue right -- which leadership style is best suited to your people and organization -- then so many other items will fall naturally into place. So, take the time to regularly challenge your leadership inheritance as you work on building the very best employee experience for your team and organization.