The next generation of leaders – Millennials or Gen Y – are subject to a fair degree of scrutiny these days. As we said about Millennials last week, this attention is understandable, partially because of the importance of incoming generations for business continuity, and because of  Millennials’ propensity for disrupting the status quo.

To get a handle on what we’re talking about when we talk about “Millennials”, we reviewed several academic papers and inevitably took in lots from the popular press on the topic of Millennials, their management, and the next generation of leaders. Considering the volume of writing and range of publications talking about Millennials, we somewhat expected to be wowed by  influential thinkers on the topic. However, a lot of what we read left us unimpressed.

It became clear to us that much of the conversation is based on biases, stereotypes, or common intergenerational dynamics that are not unique to the current interactions between Gen Y, Gen X, and Boomers (think of statements like “The kids these days,” or “Don’t trust people over thirty;” sometimes we forget this disconnect is not new).  Further, the similarities between the generations far outweigh their differences.

However, what emerged from our review was the new premium placed on development, both as a primary driver of retention and engagement among Gen Y, and as a way for senior leaders to prepare the next generation for high-stakes leadership responsibilities sooner than would typically be expected.

How Demographic Changes Put an Emphasis on Development

Consider these facts:

This means that we’re likely to see key leadership roles held by individuals who are younger and less experienced than they have been in the past.   Further, the point at which Millennial leaders assume senior management responsibilities, they are likely to have more academic preparation and less experiential preparation compared to previous generations of leaders.

These demographic facts suggest that focusing on leadership development within organizations is increasingly important, in part because it allows for preparation with less of investment of time. The trend of organizations moving away from annual reviews and towards more real time and impactful performance management processes points to the importance of fostering growth and identifying potential, not just measuring performance.

How Millennial Motivations Put an Emphasis on Development

While we remain skeptical about sweeping generalizations, labels applied to an entire generation of people, and the efficacy of using these judgement to make decisions, it would appear that Generation Y seeks and is clearly motivated by opportunities to develop their abilities – according to this poll, a full 87% of Millennials surveyed said development is important in a job.

Further, development has emerged as a primary driver of retention among Gen Y and the workforce at large.

The Millennial generation is already the largest in the workforce. Their motivations and perspectives are going to dominate the workforce in the near term and for generations to come.

The New Premium Place on Development

Given the demographics outlined above, Gen Y will likely need to be ready for leadership responsibilities faster than in previous generations. There are also other changes in the work environment that are leading to the Rise of the Young CEO – think again of Burger King, or the increase of technology-based companies which are more likely to be run by young CEOs.

Both from a preparation and retention standpoint, proactive and organized development is key to preparing Millennials and to ensuring leadership continuity.  Customized developmental programming has emerged as a strategic asset of sophisticated organizations. Whirlpool is the embodiment of a savvy and strategic HR function that has created value for the business by establishing robust developmental offerings, successful successions plans for leadership roles, and by ensuring key leadership positions are staffed with the talent required to take the enterprise into the future.

Increasingly, Millennials are the cornerstone of this strategy.  And, their preference of a robust developmental offering has placed a spotlight on the importance of thoughtful development and preparation for all generations in the workforce today.