‘Leaders’ of a different kind

September 19, 2018

Q: How do you lead millennials?

A: You don’t.

A colleague of mine at the University of Exeter Business School once observed of our students: “These people want to work. But they don’t necessarily want jobs.” He had summed up the millennial outlook on life in a nutshell. Millennials want to work, not for the sake of it, but so they can do something that gives their lives both meaning and pleasure. They are an equal compound of selfishness and selflessness. They see the wrongs in the world and want to put them right, and they see opportunities for themselves in doing so. Nor, unlike some older generations, do they see any contradiction between doing good and doing well.

We talk a lot about how to motivate people at work, but with millennials the problem is different. They are already motivated. The problem is that what they want to do is not always what we want them to do. Eddie Jones, coach of the England rugby union football club, put it very clearly in an interview with the BBC. “Rugby players are very good at doing what they want to do,” he said. “My job is to get them do what they don’t want to do.”

That is one way of looking at the problem; taking a group of individuals with disparate notions about what is important to them and what they want to achieve, and welding them into a team with a single purpose. But as any coach of team sports will tell you, this is not always easy, especially when working at a high level. If we try to tell millennials what to do, they will push back. And as leaders, if we cannot impose sufficient authority on them to get them to do what we want them to do, then we have lost. Instead of a closely knit team pursuing a single goal, we will have individuals pursuing their own goals—quite possibly at odds with the goals of the company.

supporters and facilitators

There is another way to look at the problem. In an article for Harvard Business Review titled Leading Clever People, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones ask the question: how do you lead people who don’t want to be led, and who are probably smarter than you? The answer in a nutshell is: you don’t. Millennials are not only self-motivated, they are also fully aware of their own abilities and their strengths (although in my experience, not always their weaknesses) and are busily matching these to their ambition. They do not want to be led, because they do not see any need for leadership. They already know what they want to do.

What they often lack, however, are the facilities to enable them to reach their dreams. They may lack financial resources, or technology, or support from other millennials to fill in the missing gaps in their own skills sets. They may have trouble accessing the right infrastructure, or—again very often in my experience—the right markets. The old American saying, ‘build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door’, is not actually true. Lots of good ideas, lots of really valuable innovations, are lost every year because the clever people who think them up cannot find a clear path to market.

One of the things leaders can do, then is to serve as facilitators. They can help millennials find the technological and financial resources they need to carry out their projects, and they can help them to develop support teams who will enable them to function more efficiently. Because they are essentially self-starters, many millennials struggle to work efficiently in teams; they see the team as somehow limiting and binding them, holding them back. Leadership can help create teams that really do work together, creating synergy rather than group thinking, generating energy rather than social loafing.

There is a (probably apocryphal) story of a Roman senator who looked out of his window to see a mob of people rushing past. Immediately, he donned his toga and ran out of the house after them. “Where are you going, senator?” someone asked him. “There go my people,” he replied, pointing to the mob. “I must go after them, so I can find out where they want me to lead them.” As leaders of millennials, that is precisely where we are to do. We must follow our people, find out what they want and learn where they want to go. Then, we help them get there. As leaders, that is our primary function.

guides and counselors

But leaders can play another role, too. One thing millennials often lack—though as I say, they do not always realize they lack it—is experience. They have not spent decades at the coal face, learning through their own mistakes and those of others that the world does not always work the way we want it to. Their enthusiasm can lead them to rush into things, without considering the law of unintended consequences.

Millennials have great ability, but they need supporters, coaches, and mentors who can help them shape their thinking and see the world more clearly. I have taught millennials at business schools for a number of years, and if they have a weakness, it is the tendency towards wishful thinking. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if the world worked this way?’ can easily turn into ‘this is how the world really does work.’ Helping them to analyze the world around them more clearly and dispassionately and then chart a realistic course forward can be very valuable, for them and for those who work with them. This means helping with things like fundamental economic analysis, practical approaches to strategy, realistic risk management, understanding customer behavior, and an appreciation of the grey areas and paradoxes inherent in ethics. A lot of knowledge of these issues comes with experience, and that is something leaders can share with their millennials.

Sometimes, too surprisingly for all their outward assurance, millennials lack inner confidence. It only needs quite a mild setback to swing them from infectious, optimistic enthusiasm to gloom and doom, ready to turn away and abandon an otherwise promising project because they now believe it will never work. They have not yet learned to look both triumph and disaster in the face, and treat them both the same. Rebuilding confidence and encouraging people to carry on is important. Very few strategies ever roll out without some kind of crisis emerging along the way—as Moltke said, “No plan survives contact with the enemy”—and getting used to this and becoming mentally agile enough to adapt and shift in the face of circumstances is vital. So too is the ability to learn from mistakes and failures. Programmes like Tata’s ‘Dare to Try’, which rewards people who have not been successful but are thinking along the right lines, are very important and should be adopted more widely.

Good leaders are also good coaches; that is nothing new. But with millennials, that coaching and mentoring role becomes even more important. Youth and enthusiasm, as someone once said, will never be a match for old age and guile. As leaders, we can use our experience and guile to help guide and channel that youthful exuberance and help it reach its goals.

the sharing of vision

Which is all very well; but what about the goals of the organization? Every business has a purpose, to serve customers, create value and in the process, return value to shareholders. How do we do this when everyone is apparently going their own way?

As John Kotter and other leadership scholars have pointed out, part of the function of the leader is to provide and share a unified, guiding vision for the organization. That is true, but when working with millennials, we need to think again about what we mean by ‘vision’ and how that vision is created. The traditional way of looking at leadership is that leaders lead and followers follow. That no longer works with millennials. As we have already noted, millennials have their own vision. The key now is to bring people together and help them negotiate and agree a common vision that they can all share. Rather than imposing his own vision on the group and expecting them to follow, the leader facilitates that common vision and supports it.

An example of a firm that does this is the optics maker Carl Zeiss Jena. Founded in the German city of Jena in the mid-nineteenth century, Carl Zeiss was, for nearly a hundred years, the world’s leading maker of optical equipment, everything from precision scientific instruments to cameras and binoculars. The firm’s managing director, Ernst Abbé, recruited top scientists from the University of Jena to come and work as project managers. Abbé gave his teams complete freedom to do whatever they liked, and they responded by coming up with cutting-edge products that gave Carl Zeiss a long lead over its competitors.

Two factors led to Carl Zeiss’s success. First, Abbé only recruited people who he knew would share the firm’s vision and work towards it. People who wanted to join the firm for purely selfish reasons, to advance their own careers, were turned away. A passion for innovation for its own sake was the first and foremost requirement. Thus, everyone who joined the firm was prepared to buy into its vision and work with others to share it. Second, although Abbé himself was an eminent physicist, he realized that his workers were experts in their own fields. They knew best what needed to be done. He stepped back, provided them with the facilities they needed to do their work, and let them get on with it.

These people, of course, were not millennials. Part of the challenge of leading millennials is that it forces us to step back and take a long hard look at how we lead and what leadership really is. Maybe the real value in leading millennials is that we now begin to understand how we should lead, not just millennials but everyone, and how we should have been leading them all along. Guiding, coaching, supporting, facilitating; those methods will beat confrontation and control, every day of the week.