Preparing and Empowering the Next Generation of Leaders
In the last two years Baby Boomers represented up to 20% of the Western workforce—with an astounding 10,000 of them reaching retirement age every single day since 2011. That’s a lot of departing institutional knowledge, crossing virtually every sector of business.
As a succession planning keynote speaker and author, I talk a lot about Millennials in the marketplace. Comprising half the current U.S. workforce and expected to reach 75% over the next five years, this complex generation cannot (and should not) be ignored.
But recently, I’ve begun to field questions about preparing the next generation of leaders during this incredibly pivotal time. It seems like just yesterday we were talking about Millennials entering the workforce, doesn’t it? Today, with the oldest in this massive and complex demographic turning 40, and already exploring the upper echelons of leadership, the NEXT generation of leaders are just now entering the workforce. So it’s time to start thinking about how they see the world—and how these different views might impact your company’s culture.
Tech Trappings & Remote Possibilities
In certain parts of the world, Millennials already represent 60% of the workforce—bringing with them radically different values, attitudes, expectations and behavior. This good news is that many of these changes are positive! While they’re not as tech-savvy as their scrappy Gen-Z incumbents, on the whole, Millennials embrace technology advances and understand the need for business systems, platforms and processes to evolve at breakneck speed.
This is a dramatic departure from previous generations, many of whom entered the workforce before or during the advent of the Internet—and who may have initially been intimidated by the sheer volume of progress during the last part of the 20th century. My previous assistant, Jean, fell into this category. One of the most emotionally intelligent people I’ve ever met, Jean was an old-school executive assistant who I inherited from my father. She finally retired a few years ago, at age 70, and I think of her with fondness nearly every day.
On the other hand, when the pandemic struck in 2020, I began to understand the inherent value that my new assistant, Katie, brings to the table. A 30-year-old Millennial, Katie is a true digital native. She’s never used a physical filing cabinet; everything in her world has always lived in the cloud. She entered a workforce that welcomes technology-based tools for managing projects and budgets; the idea of routing a manila folder for physical sign-off would probably get an eye-roll emoji—and maybe even a giggle in real life.
Partly as a result of embracing technology, Millennials inhabit a bigger, broader world than previous generations could possibly have known. Unlike the trickle of information to which Boomers had access—think about paging through a musty encyclopedia rather than a quick scroll through Wikipedia—Millennials get their information from a virtual firehose. They appreciate and expect diversity, and understand their place in the global knowledge base.
For leaders and hiring managers, this can be both a blessing and a curse. According to the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), Millennials know what they want from their employers, and aren’t afraid to ask. In fact, they are “most likely to make specific requests regarding work conditions, including the assignment of tasks, resource planning, problem solving, training, scheduling, work location, work space, dispute resolution, guidance, coaching, recognition, promotions, raises, benefits and other rewards.”
To Gen X leaders like myself, this may sound a touch high-maintenance—and it is! But we have to remember how we got here, and it certainly wasn’t by leaving entire legions of latchkey kids to fend for themselves on leftovers and luck. As children, Millennials were insulated, educated, scheduled, supported and accommodated to a previously unheard-of degree. They think and learn differently, and may require more guidance and mentoring than those of us who may or may not have been raised by wolves. And perhaps even more importantly, they were conditioned to continue seeking the ideal wherever they can find it.
As Millennials and Gen Z employees invade the workforce, employers are seeing a marked decline in long-term tenures. This will start to put pressure on organizations to extend succession planning beyond the CEO role—into nearly every corner of one’s enterprise. (Gen Z’ers have a whole new set of demands they will ask of you ~ read the addendum at the end of this article for their requirements.)
In practice, this is easier said than done. I recently lost a director—a key team member who finally lost his valiant, six-year fight against a debilitating heart condition. He had been a director of our family business for 17 years and more than that had become a confidant and mentor for me. Although I knew this day was coming, it was difficult to look beyond the person with whom I’d built a strong personal relationship over many years. It was even harder, I realize now, to accept the reason behind having to look.
3-D Succession Planning: My Top Tips
Having personally weathered this and even more serious succession planning failures over the course of my career, I now think about this process as being fully three-dimensional. So, as I work with my clients on the succession planning keynote speaker circuit, and as an outside advisor to several Boards, it’s no longer just about grooming top-level leadership—it’s about laying the groundwork for a smooth transition from virtually every role in your company. Here’s what works for me, and why.
1. Tap Talent
Look for the people in your organization who genuinely take pride in doing a good job. These are the employees who naturally put the company’s and customers’ best interests ahead of any personal acclaim. These are the folks to start investing in today.
In my dealership business, I called these people my “core competencies”—obvious A-Players who went above and beyond to deliver exceptional results, regardless of what they were being asked to do. They were seldom self promoters; instead, they let their work and their results speak for them. I noticed that these people were easily able to build consensus with a cross-functional team; they also tended to be good at mentoring less-experienced people.
Louise was a great example, she was an accomplished sales executive, selling almost 300 cars per year, but as a sales manager, she was also a gifted coach. She helped new sales people to develop self-confidence by showing them how to do the basics well and build that on top of a solid work ethic.
2. Set Up Success
Empower the next generation of leaders, who at every level, will be under pressure to get more work done in less time, whether working in-person or remotely. When asking a high-performer to step up into a leadership role make sure they are fully prepared for the additional responsibility and authority. When preparing the next generation of leaders, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Management is more than extra paperwork! They have to work with their team, lead them and hold them accountable for results. Make sure you clearly outline what success looks like as a leader for your organization.
- Check in regularly (whether in person or virtually) with newly appointed leaders. Ask them about challenges they might be facing, and work with them to problem-solve potential solutions.
- Schedule regular informal reviews. I did weekly 1-on-1 meetings with all of my direct reports. It’s critical with young and/or inexperienced leaders to be able to course-correct often—this stops small issues from becoming big ones!
- Be crystal clear about your expectations. At any level, nothing is worse than trying to guess where and how your boss wants you to direct your focus and ambition.
3. Praise Often
Millennials, more than any other generation, thrive on praise and recognition. Keep track of their successes and give regular feedback as part of your succession planning process. As one of my sales managers used to say, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions!”
4. Start Thinking about Tomorrow, Today
With a phased and proactive approach, this need not be an overwhelming process. Work on identifying and developing your stars NOW—both with on-the-job training and mentoring as well as external forms of professional development. The rising workforce expects this from employers, and will look elsewhere if you fail to provide it.
As a sought-after succession planning expert, I’m advising my clients to think quite a bit further ahead. Here are the top five things Generation Z will need from you in order to succeed:
- Thanks to the endless stream of information pouring out of our phones, it can be difficult to remember that there was a time when “Google it” wasn’t a viable solution for every one of life’s conundrums – Gen Z hasn’t experienced that world. So, while you should do all you can to mentor your digital natives in the finer points of their roles and responsibilities, know that they’re also pretty darn resourceful. When facing a new challenge or a gap in their knowledge, they’re less likely to raise a hand for assistance—and more likely to scour YouTube for the top-rated tutorial.
- Maybe it’s the unexpected result of their DIY learning style, but early research shows that Generation Z is not only open to your input—but actively craves it! A recent study revealed that 66% of surveyed Gen Z-ers wanted multiple weekly check-ins with their manager throughout the week, and also that these quickie face-to-face or virtual meetings were proven to improve productivity and reduce turnover. As I’ve mentioned to my succession planning keynote speaker clients, preparing the next generation for leadership requires a very delicate balance between fostering self-sufficiency and reassuring, light-touch guidance.
- By now, you’ve probably already heard that Millennials are a great deal more motivated by causes than previous generations—they need to know they’re making a difference, and that the companies for which they work align with their personal values. This trend likely trend upwards with Gen Z. Whether your business is a community-centric, non-profit or driven by high-volume sales, your Gen Z employees will want to know your organization’s mission and your vision for impacting the broader world…and they WILL expect you to “walk the walk.”
- While the Millennial workforce has dabbled in the gig economy and largely left it behind in favor of a steadier paycheck (and greater long-term emotional rewards), Gen Z has never known anything else. According to a recent study, 41% of Gen Z-ers are planning to start their own business—as compared to the meager 4% of Millennials who have made this a reality. Now, it may be too early to tell how this will play out, but suffice it to say that giving your Gen Z employees room to experiment and even fail is a good strategy; they’ll learn valuable lessons, and you may uncover new solutions to old problems.
- Work-life Balance. As a “corporate survivor” who inherited and turned around a failing family business, THEN applied those learnings to a second (and more balanced) career as a real estate investor and succession planning keynote speaker, I have seen both sides of this coin. My generation, X, watched our parents work themselves into early graves, so we’ve always been more protective of our personal downtime. Millennials, struggling under the heaviest student loan burden in history, are learning to find balance in other ways, such as flexible and remote work schedules, or culture perks like game rooms and rotating food trucks.
Is Gen-Z wise-beyond-their-years? They’re learning from all of this. They know that nearly 30% of Millennials are experiencing career burnout in their 30s, so they’re proactive (and firm) about balancing the demands of their careers with the demands of their lives. They’ve fully embraced technology, but they also know that the human element is what will keep them connected and fulfilled both at home and at work. For best results, empower the next generation of leaders with an open mind, a light hand and—perhaps most importantly—a willingness to learn.