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Millennials as the New Leadership Class: How Organizations Can Inspire, Develop, and Retain the Digital Generation


From politics to the corporate sector to non-profit organizations, we are now witnessing the rise of the millennial generation into leadership. As the first generation to have grown up with the internet, millennials will inevitably put their stamp on what it means to lead. A key question on most organization’s minds now is how to harness the unique strengths of the digital generation and develop their leadership skills to lead them into the next era.

Along with the fluid use of digital tools, there are a few key themes that are emerging to help organizations chart a course to retain and cultivate millennial leaders. Across the growing field of research on millennial workplace trends, we see a pattern of values among this generation: authenticity, inclusive communication, and team bonding. At SoulBuffalo, we design our global leadership programs to reinforce these values, and find that combining them with meaningful learning experiences related to the environment and globalization are a particular draw to the millennial set.

The relentless pursuit of inspiration and innovation

A recent study published in Entrepreneur found that Millennial leaders “constantly seek inspiration. Millennials thrive on building organizations with defined visions on how to impact people’s lives.” The article goes on to add that “millennials value being inspired, which means that as leaders, they work to inspire others in the office. They build emotional connections with coworkers and employees to get to their hearts — a surefire way to keep a team close-knit and highly motivated performance-wise.” These are leaders that value purpose, relationships, and communication.

In a recent Fortune study of the best workplaces for millennials, the researchers identified a number of key cultural traits reported as highly desirable by potential employees. Some of the most pronounced examples include inspiring innovation, giving back to society, and authenticity. A second article in Fortune speaking to the same subject adds that “millennial leaders put the highest priority on interpersonal skills…. Their prototypical leader is an inspiring coach, a compelling communicator and one who…involves others in decision making rather than imposing decisions on them.” Later in the same piece, Fortune quotes one of their focus group participants as saying “You don’t tell people what to do, you empower them” — a concise and evocative summation of this new leadership style.

This is the kind of leadership necessary to tackle the problems of the modern age: leaders that use purpose, authenticity, and clear communication to inspire and empower their colleagues. How, though, can one cultivate and retain such leaders? How can an organization position itself to attract this new class of talent?

The Retention Problem

Millennials have a reputation for switching jobs much more frequently than preceding generations. Rather than following the doctrine of innate company loyalty, the millennial generation tends to approach the workplace by constantly questioning whether his or her position is the right place to be. This attitude is all too frequently and incorrectly dismissed as entitlement. Companies that fall into this trap stand to lose their new generation of leaders to those that can pivot their way of thinking.

A recent article in Forbes acknowledges the generation’s reputation for job-hopping and posits that a greater degree of loyalty can be attained by playing to the cultural desires of millennials. The author suggests that a company must “answer the craving for a vision with a job that is worth doing…  They are a generation who isn’t satisfied to understand the ‘what’ of their job. Millennials also want to understand the ‘why’ — why am I doing what I’m doing? And how does this contribute to the bigger vision of the firm? What is this bigger purpose we all serve here? Thus, it’s again the task of the leader to draft a good story about the purpose of the company, where the team is heading, and why.”

The gap between a company’s stated purpose and actual behavior has long been an area of significant disconnect. Environmental NGOs, human rights watchdogs, and campaigning organizations in numerous other sectors have frequently zeroed in on this weak point in their efforts to identify and transform bad actors in the corporate sector. Fortune notes that “inconsistency between an organization’s stated and lived values will immediately undermine its leaders’ trustworthiness. Millennials are especially sensitive to authenticity.”

The same study also reports that we see that “millennials who say they have a great place to work are 20 times more likely than peers who do not have that experience to plan to stay with the company (compared to 15 times for Gen X and nine times for Boomers).” Moreover, the research indicated that “millennials who found ‘special meaning’ in their work were six times more likely to plan to stay at their workplaces,” and HR Cloud reports that millennials prefer companies that “encourage intrapreneurship [and] create unexpected, one-of-a-kind experiences.”

A Path Forward

Today’s challenges are unlike anything we have faced before, and thus require a kind of leadership different from that which has prevailed in the past. We can source such leaders from those who have the strongest ties to the current state of the planet — those who are not confounded by the often harsh transformation that the digital age has brought and who are not overly attached to memories of previous, seemingly simpler times. Indeed, it may be sensible to look to the millennial generation for the champions we need to lead us into this new era.

As a leadership development organization that focuses heavily on the millennial generation, SoulBuffalo specializes in connecting our participants with the large-scale, purpose-driven issues that can forge authentic corporate purpose. We use global challenges to help companies create integral communication and value systems that translate to both employee culture and the marketplace. Our immersive expeditions provide the visceral experiences necessary to promote organic growth, authentic communication, and the kind of cultural evolution necessary for those companies looking to attract their next generation of effective, inspirational leaders.

Leadership in the modern age requires new methods of relating to the planet and to our fellow human beings. To succeed in today’s workplace, companies need the right people working for them, and this is only possible by attracting, cultivating, and retaining the talent necessary for dynamic, agile, and forthright leadership.