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Step-by-Step: Lead like a Millennial executive

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The new Millennial boardroom

The new Millennial boardroom, Credit:

As members of the Millennial generation (born between 1980-1994) make their way up the corporate ladder, analysts foretell a shift in business-as-usual. But what is changing, really? “Leadership in general is not going to be completely redefined,” says Michael Parrish DuDell, Millennial business author and keynote speaker. “But when we start to look at some of the differences in how generations lead, what we see is it’s not so much about the principles, the ‘what’—it’s more about the ‘how.’” DuDell points to studies showing Millennials want ‘authentic leadership’ and empowered employees. And Millennial clients—armed with rapidly increasing purchasing power—are themselves said to expect transparency across the supply chain and a stellar buyer experience. All the while they are disrupting and innovating how we do business, Millennial executives are still tasked with meeting basic corporate objectives, like simply keeping the lights on and keeping shareholders of all generations happy.

If business-as-usual as defined by Baby Boomer and Generation X bosses means cutting overhead, chasing new markets and racking up revenue, then a Millennial-friendly company is all this plus offering competitive costs for savvy buyers, creating high-quality products for mass audiences and embodying ethical business practices. Playing by these rules is a tall order for any leader of any generation.

Whether you are a Millennial finding your seat at the boardroom table, a C-suite executive recruiting new talent, or you’re attempting contact with that elusive Millennial consumer, it is time to think like a Millennial executive. Hint: start by asking yourself not what your Millennials can do for you, but what you can do for your Millennial employees and clients.


Step 1: Create opportunities for personal contact

Yes, Millennials are most definitely “digital natives”—they have learned to first experience the world online from a personal, connected device. Does this mean they are withdrawn introverts hiding behind their phones and laptops, eschewing human contact? Not quite. “[Millennials] are very comfortable with a digital environment, obviously,” said Carolyn Heller Baird of the IBM Institute for Business Value during a THINK Leaders webcast. “Digital is ubiquitous and just becomes table stakes. The real differentiator for Millennials here is to actually get to know the vendor a little bit, get to see if they’re going to be a good fit for them.”

Source: IBM Institute for Business Value: To Buy or Not to Buy? (Click image to expand)

While it’s true that many people—including Millennials—increasingly feel comfortable making critical business-to-business research and purchasing decisions online, real people are still informing these decisions. Face-to-face interaction is still a preferred approach for Millennials who increasingly are making B2B buying decisions. In short, your digital customer journey must always be seamless and convenient, but so should your person-to-person interactions.

This model works inside your organization as well: when’s the last time you sent a personal email to an employee, or took a junior staff member to lunch? As JT Kostman, Chief Data Officer of Time Inc, said of his team as he spoke at the Fall 2015 IBM CDO Strategy Summit, “Not everyone likes to be the center of attention, but no one likes to be ignored.”


Step 2: Provide data from multiple trusted sources

The majority of Millennials believe in using analytics to make smarter business decisions, compared to 45 percent of Baby Boomers. However, Millennials are more comfortable making decisions when they have a variety of different inputs. Living through the world’s transition to digital means they have grown to expect information from a variety of reputable sources, when and where they want it. These sources range from industry reports to face-to-face meetings, to word-of-mouth recommendations from people they trust. When possible, communicate with Millennials on a more holistic level by putting reliable data in context of experiences shared by clients, colleagues, or even family and friends.

Source: IBM Institute for Business Value: To Buy or Not to Buy? (Click image to expand)

Offering transparency into relevant, useful data can even make for better user experiences—something mission-critical to Millennials, especially those who are making B2B purchasing decisions.


Step 3: Know who’s influencing the influencers

It’s a disrupt-or-be-disrupted world—in fact, the 2015 IBM C-suite Study showed that 54 percent of CxOs were concerned of competition coming from industry convergence. This is largely because the old barriers have been knocked down, overtaken by a flood of idea-sharing: departmental, industry and geographic boundaries are no match for the accessibility of information that the Millennial generation is used to. As a result, uncovering your competitive advantage with this group in particular can mean seeking inspiration from some pretty unexpected places.


Source: 2015 IBM C-suite study (Click image to expand)

And it may be right to fear disruption. As Millennials ascend into leadership roles (older Millennials are soon to be over 35 years old and have had more than a decade in the work force; the world’s most recognized business influencers include Millennial Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook), more upended business models may be on the horizon. Increased access to diverse knowledge and an instinct to embrace new technologies means this new generations of executive could be more willing and able to seek new paradigms. Creating a culture of flexibility and experimentation, with a staff embedded with Millennials, is a way to prepare your organization for that next big opportunity for growth.

Step 4: Demonstrate authenticity from the top-down

Going too “Millennial-friendly” can backfire among Millennials themselves, if attempts to seem “transparent” or “disruptive” feel inauthentic. Real corporate culture starts at the top, and staff must demonstrate that they believe in it. In an IBM study, Millennial respondents described their “perfect boss” as transparent and direct, ethical and fair. They reported wanting someone they could look up to more than someone who would allow them to work independently, a trait more prized by Baby Boomers.

Source: IBM Institute for Business Value (Click image to expand)

And though a Virtuali study reports Millennials do want to be leaders—in fact, 50 percent of respondents were already in leadership positions—64 percent felt unprepared for their role when accepting. This suggests that even current and aspiring executives are looking for guidance, and are more likely than previous generations to value collaboration before feeling confident in making business decisions.

Ultimately, to lead like a Millennial, and to be a leader that Millennials respect, become a trustworthy person, build a collaborative culture, offer a flexible work environment and commit to digital transformation. And remember that these are not uniquely Millennial desires. In fact, observes Baird, your Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers have been asking for these types of changes for years. “If the Millennials then become that catalyst for the change, that’s all goodness, and it’s goodness for everybody.”

Senior Writer, THINK Leaders

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