Our firm’s mission is to be the best partner for selecting, integrating and developing world-class leaders. To this end, we have hosted a series of round table discussions with various clients and colleagues. The purpose? Creating a shared understanding about what is required to successfully “lead into the future”; that is, how to stay ahead of the curve on the future challenges, opportunities and requirements facing today’s emerging leaders.
Millennials will soon dominate the management landscape, so we are keenly interested in what will influence their career choices, as well as how to best prepare them for what’s coming down the road. Recently, we hosted twelve high potential undergraduate students from the Ohio University Emerging Leaders Program. These students were all driven, insightful, mature beyond their years – and a lot of fun to be around. As part of their education, they are being exposed to a number of established businesses, start-ups, and industry thought leaders across the Midwest and beyond. They will soon be exactly the sort of graduates many organizations will be seeking to hire and quickly provide significant stretch opportunities to that, ten years ago, would have been uncommon.
During the round table, we asked these up and coming leaders just a few questions. For example:
- What is going to matter the most to you in choosing how and where to launch your careers?
- What was your earliest and most important experience of leading?
- What are the big challenges and opportunities which will confront your generation of leaders?
What Matters Most to You?
Our students had ready responses to this question: clear expectations; being encouraged to voice one’s opinions; a work environment based on collaboration; and frequent, thoughtful, and constructive feedback. When someone mentioned “a strong sense of purpose,” a wave of agreement swept through the room, with all heads nodding in unison: “I want a job that helps me get up in the morning”; “I need to know how what I’m doing impacts the company”; “It’s most important to make a difference in someone’s life.” There was clear agreement that company values should align with their own; this group of high potentials also felt that the function one provides in a business may be more important than the industry itself. This surprised us, but reinforces the notion that young leaders value making a difference where they work more than seeking an industry that is well known for advancing the cause of humanity.
“A Boss Who Trusts Me”
When discussing what matters, we also asked the group what they most need in a boss. The answers? A boss who cares about them and their work and who trusts that they can be successful were strong sentiments. Additionally, our students mentioned approachability, commitment to fostering growth, the availability to solve problems together and being transformational with feedback (and its opposite, “don’t demoralize”). The group expressed gratitude for each other, noting “this is the best team we’ve ever been on, and it motivates us to give it our all.” This led to a shared recognition that they expect to work for someone who can assemble and lead cohesive, high-performing teams. When we polled the group, one third of them felt that they had already worked for a manager who had the touchstone qualities of a Best Boss, which suggested to us that they will have high expectations for the management skill of the person they report to early in their careers – and, by extension, little tolerance for mediocre leaders who demonstrate “a lack of vision and direction” or “who don’t listen.”
What Was Your Earliest and Most Important Experience of Leading?
The students were able to quickly summon instances where they emerged as leaders among their cohort or peers, typically in the context of team sports. This observation sounds trite, but it is not. We have found that job candidates for front-line leadership positions often cannot readily come up with examples of leading, or convey lessons learned about their own leadership identity or potential. This strongly reinforces the value of participating in emerging leader programs to gain early exposure to constructive feedback, so as to build efficacy and tolerance for gaining self-insight and pursuing self-improvement in a meaningful and disciplined way. The second observation highlights the value of young people exploring early opportunities to interact with and serve others, whether it’s sports or other types of clubs (our group also mentioned business competitions and 4H).
The Group Gets Stumped
The team admittedly had difficulty reflecting on just one of the questions that we posed: What is the value of your leadership? Yet, with a bit of introspection, they were able to offer a variety of insights, ranging from “helping others achieve their potential” to “aligning a team around a common goal that helps the business succeed” – which, to our way of thinking, are pretty laudable answers.
How Do We Lead Into 2020?
As we finished the round table discussion with questions related to what 2020 and beyond would require of those who lead, we observed that the answers (i.e., stay focused, ignore distractions, manage an astonishing rise in the number of differing perspectives) resonated with current challenges we’ve encountered in the leadership sphere: increasing speed, scale and complexity. They commented on the need for constant learning, staying ahead of the curve and figuring out “how analytics tell a story about our ideas for tomorrow and then tell it yesterday”. They agreed that being better prepared for succeeding in a digital world was paramount, and that a lack of communication will be the biggest obstacle (“If you aren’t on social media, you are left out”).
Other issues affecting leadership culture that came up in our conversation included mass transportation, AI, facial recognition, and “privacy in a transparent world.” Of course, a major concern was understanding the next generation (“who’s after us and who will be our market”), including a focus not just on technology, but also people in order to “always be adapting to our changing needs”.
Where Do We Go From Here?
A key takeaway from our discussion with these young leaders was the value of ensuring that the career discussions occurring between Boomers, Gen X’ers and Millennials happen in a way that expands the perspective of what’s most important to each generation, including the customers we serve and the organizations we work for.
To this end, it is useful for anyone engaged in career conversations to write down a list of the Values and Value Proposition from three perspectives: ourselves, the organization for whom we work or may work, and the any other key stakeholders that we serve (customers, alliances and partnerships, civic and recreational groups). An individual or an organization’s values can be determined by asking two things: 1) What Is the need? and 2) What is the purpose?
Based on our round table discussion, the set of aligned values and value proposition may look like this:
Over the next two days, this classy group of students reached out thank us for the thought-provoking questions and for the novelty of the round table discussion format, in which we all got to share ideas and learn from each other. They also expressed excitement about continuing the dialogue around what it will take to lead into the future. Thoughtfulness, gratitude, maturity, purpose, commitment and curiosity: it seems like we are in good hands with our next generation of leaders.