Leading generation Y

Leadership for the next generation knowledge worker

How leadership uses purpose, personalisation and freedom to transform Generation Y knowledge workers into high performers and navigate their organisations through the generational shift.

A new generation of employees and customers. An intensified battle for the best talent. An updated set of leadership skills required for the vast energy supplies waiting to be unleashed. Will you handle it better and faster than your competition?

Leadership for the next generation knowledge worker

This is an extract of the full article

Alongside battling all the pressing operational and strategic challenges, recruiting and retaining the best people is vital for top-performing organisations to survive and thrive in today’s fiercely competitive economy. Several recent studies provide proof that Generation Y constitute a real powerhouse of vast energy supplies.

Organisations just have to learn how to unleash it and capture its potential value. The fact that Gen Y differ substantially from their predecessor generations poses both a great challenge as well as a great opportunity for employers. The changes that this generation will bring about are predicted to be of a magnitude larger than ever before. Since people and organisations are creations of habits, we have to understand the underlying factors that are shaping these habits, and the changes required for a symbiotic relationship between organisations and Gen Y to be created. Gen Y will not only constitute the next generation employees, but also the next generation customers. For leadership to understand and adapt to these generational changes is essential in order to create high levels of engagement and, in the end, to “make the sale”.

Why should you care?

Motivated employees can be a huge differentiator and a key to success, but motivation and sources of meaning change inevitably between generations. As the share of next generation employees increases, leadership have to understand these dynamics and know how to adapt in order to create higher engagement levels and transform the creativity into business value.

  • Customer interaction: Who will be the winners, when the ways of doing business are being changed?
  • Corporate culture: How to attract and re-attract the next generation through understanding their motivational drivers?
  • Leadership: What could leadership do to speed up Gen Y development and organisational growth?

"In my organisation, there are real differences between older and younger generations and how they approach work"

Leadership for the next generation knowledge worker

The rise of Gen Y is one of the drivers of the current business paradigm shift

Just like generational changes, the business world is regularly undergoing paradigm shifts. During the 1990s, businesses had to drive down costs and ensure efficient processes, so the context demanded focus on operational excellence. In the beginning of the 2000s, operational excellence had made businesses vulnerable to disruption and, consequently, focus shifted to growth through innovation. Currently, the business world is undergoing yet another paradigm shift, driven mainly by three factors:

  1. An increasingly interconnected world
    Organisations and people are more tightly connected than ever. Any issue spreads at lightning speed risking to cause lateral damage.
  2. Employee engagement
    In a world, where personal change is increasingly natural, employees have to
    be engaged in order to be retained. “Attract and retain” is dead – “Attract and
    re-attract” is born.
  3. The rise of Generation Y
    This latest generation to enter the workforce have great potential, while being
    fundamentally different from previous generations, requiring changes to how
    businesses are run.

This article provides an exploration of the last driver, namely how organisations will have to change their ways of running their businesses as the next generation employees gain a larger share of power. It is not to say that this generation have more right than any of the previous generations, only that they are growing rapidly in numbers, which will require changes to be made according to their motivational drivers and ways of working.

Various episodes have shaped the different generations’ world views, motivational drivers and values into a unique set of generational characteristics of preferences and behaviours. Notably, the essence of the word meaning in regard to work and conception of life has altered from one generation to the other. Since each generation experience their way as the best or right way, friction due to such generation gaps is formed. As you may have already experienced in your organisation, working together across generational borders may inflict divergences in preferences and behaviour. The career and growth opportunities that the next generation employees are asking for are starting to have great implications for organisational set-ups, work design and reward systems and how employees and managers collaborate.

Therefore: Be warned. The reading you are about to take part in may be provoking to you, whether you are a traditionalist, a baby boomer, a Gen X or a Gen Y, who disagrees with the findings based on several sources, including real-life cases, interviews and statistics. Please decide for yourself to continue reading with an open mind. Of course, everything stated in this article can be ignored, but the question is: For how long will your organisation – and you – continue to thrive?

A seismic shift in the workforce is upon us. Right now

For years, baby boomers and, to some extent, Generation X have controlled the workplace, a fact that is rapidly changing. Between 2007 and 2012, America’s 500 largest companies lost half of their senior management due to an ageing workforce. An ageing population also means that there is a smaller pool of new candidates and that the battle for talent intensifies. In 2015, Gen Y surpassed Gen X to become the largest generation in the workforce. These numbers are continuing to grow rapidly since a large share of Gen Y are still to finish their studies.

The change of motivational drivers among the workforce is nothing unique. Companies were blindsided both when the hard-to-manage boomers came along as well as when the self-oriented Gen Xers entered the stage and demanded work-life balance. Before we try to understand the dynamics of these changes, let us examine the current status of the various generations in order to place this article in its relevant context:

Currently, Gen Y are covering the span all the way from new graduates to the ones
who in a few years will be knocking on the door to management levels, as well as
the people reaching powerful buying positions at potential customers. For about
the next 50 years, this generation will be having an impact on the business world. If
waiting too long to adapt to the curiosity and new set of expectations that they are
bringing about, organisations risk losing their most talented people and potential
sales opportunities to competitors – in the end, possibly even run out of business.


Leadership for the next generation knowledge worker

What shaped the generations?

Let us take a look at the driving forces, which have shaped the generations and
the effects that these have created.

Traditionalists (1925 – 1943)
The traditionalists grew up during the Great Depression and WWII, becoming the compliant assistants to their parents and older siblings who were heading for the battlefields. Growing up in an overprotected environment with lots of rules and having missed the opportunity to prove themselves in the war, they got nicknamed as the “Silent generation”. Their hierarchical and status-dominated upbringing made them very respectful towards authoritarian and fearsome leaders in the workplace. One was not likely to switch employer, since change was counteracting to the structured way of life that everyone was taught to live. Work was seen as necessary, and it was one’s duty to provide for his family. Working hard and sacrificing oneself for the greater good became the traditionalist’s motto.

Baby boomers (1944 – 1961)
Then came along the baby boomers, a generation who entered the world after the end of WWII. Life was still relatively hard, but societies slowly began to prosper. Better education and technological advancements helped to make the boomers a successful generation. If one was strong, one could make it. Having lived through and survived WWII, the boomers’ parents thought that their children should do something of themselves. The boomers were encouraged to challenge themselves, resulting in the “me” becoming the centre of attention.

These factors created a competitive, goal-driven and optimistic generation, later on resulting in the first batches of newly produced business MBAs – as well as the first generation of workaholics. Meaning was found by focusing on achieving and getting ahead to eventually ascend to the meaningful positions if you managed to play you cards right. Laying at your deathbed, the work you had accomplished was the proof of your life success.

Generation X (1962 – 1981)
A global economic recession. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The first personal computers. These factors played an important role in the shaping of Generation X. This generation was the first whose parents were both working, spending more and more time away from home trying to impress their bosses, giving up quality time with their children. Spending on average only 15 minutes a day with adult role models, Gen X became used to being alone. This separateness caused many members of Gen X to turn inwards to themselves, retreating to mantras such as “I have to do it myself”.

The bright opportunities of the previous generation were now gone, making Gen X a group of sceptical and realistic individualists prone to huge risk-taking, unafraid of switching between workplaces. Due to the turbulent times, employers were not to be trusted and work could disappear at any time, better not to emerge the entire “you” into it. These circumstances helped breed Gen X into the most entrepreneurial generation ever, creating breakthrough products that shifted the paradigm from “withholding information is power” to “sharing information is power”.

Having seen with their own eyes their parents working their butts off, they became more aware than previous generations of how they spend their time and energy, thus demanding more work-life balance from employers. Bossiness and stiff corporate cultures had to make room for hanging out with friends and enjoying life outside work. Work was seen as a means to an end, while real meaning was sought beyond. The increased importance of having a good time brought informality and fun to the workplace, which was previously quite uncommon or even frowned upon.

Generation Y (1982 – 2001)
Millennials. The Idiot generation. Echo Boomers. Generation We. The Net generation. The Global generation. The Always On generation. Generation Why. There are many nicknames for this latest generation to enter the workforce.

Gen Y are often described as a self-entitled bunch of unmanageable kids, raised to the skies by their parents, labelled as exaggeratedly ambitious dreamers who want everything to happen now, both greater benefits and more time off work. Some see this generation as lazy, while they pride themselves with having been taught to think creatively, finding new and smarter ways to work more efficiently. Since Gen Y were born during relatively good economic times and followed in the wake after the much smaller Gen X, they have always been in demand and have had plenty of choices. A number of key trends have shaped Gen Y into one of the most promising – and misunderstood – groups of people ever to join the workforce, which poses both a huge opportunity as well as a great challenge for employers. Let us find out which trends have had a significant impact on Gen Y.

The first trend: Parenting. Gen Y’s boomer parents were the first to stop ruling with an iron fist, providing autonomy to their children. Therefore, Gen Y have since early childhood been used to having the possibility to choose from an ever expanding selection of activities to participate in. Gen Y have, in contrast to Gen X, spent several hours a day with adult role models. As opposed to Gen X who generally tend to be individualists distinguished by some degree of trust issues and difficulties to work with seniors, Gen Y are team-oriented and thrive when getting to work closely and collaboratively with seniors, drawing on their extensive bank of experience. Moreover, Gen Y’s boomer parents, who were frustrated with trying to be good at everything, encouraged their children to specialise in areas to truly excel. Alongside the constant juggle of choices, this has made Gen Y eager to try and excel in new areas, meaning that they dismiss the idea of being limited to specialising in one sole, predetermined area of expertise.

The second shaping trend is the evolution of the essence of “meaning”, evolving towards a more targeted purpose-driven life. Previously separated professional and private purposes are merging into an overall life purpose. Growing up seeing their boomer parents performing stressful corporate jobs at the same time as catering intensely for their children have made Gen Y very aware of the effects of too high levels of stress. The importance of energy expenditure and renewal, has laid the foundation for a paradigm shift from work-life balance towards life balance. This can mistakenly be interpreted as laziness, but Gen Y are in fact every bit, if not even more, as engaged in their work as previous generations.

They are not interested in labouring long hours to build a kingdom for a manager, but will work their guts out for a cause and a vision larger than themselves. This misperception has created a wide generation gap between Gen Y and previous generations. Gen Y merely strive to maximise the rewards from a wide range of achievements – before, during and after work – in search of a purpose-driven life, exemplified by the following quote from a next generation employee: “A Gen X colleague of mine kept calling and emailing me on evenings and weekends. I tried to discretely transfer the message that this was unwanted behaviour, only to get the response: “I looked in your calendar, and you did not have anything planned”.

Puzzled by this ignorance, I made a recurring “Private appointment” in my calendar each evening and weekend in order to make it clear and visual that I indeed had other plans – they just did not involve work”. For Gen Y, work is just one aspect of a full life, which has to be both fun and inspiring. The third important trend is the technological revolution. Gen Y is the first generation to grow up being connected to the entire world 24/7, thus inventing new ways of socialising and working at the same time as developing an increased awareness of the global economy and the situation in emerging countries. This has strengthened the will to contribute to progress both for organisations and for the larger world. Furthermore, technological advancements in industries such as computers, social media and travelling have all contributed to the new way of living life in the fast lane. Speed is more important than ever for this “restless generation” and the on-demand culture is anticipated to seep into the workplace as the share of Gen Y increases, affecting career ways, reward models and time-off policies.

Emerged from the trends already mentioned, customisation has arisen as a spin-off trend. Gen Y have always been able to shape the world around them according to their own preferences in a variety of domains:

  1. Shaping the immediate environment: Which internet pages to add to your
    favourites, personalised marketing, custom-made apparel and individually
    selected iPhone apps.
  2. Expressing who you are: Gen Y have, since childhood, been allowed to express
    who they are both during spare time and school hours, being less exposed to
    authoritarian leadership figures.
  3. Flexibility: The on-demand culture has brought about the opportunity to
    construct a more flexible existence where change is something natural.

So, always having the possibility to shape one’s life according to stationary and emergent needs, the next generation employees will most likely customise their ways of working as well. The one-size-fits-all model is dead.

Last but not least, it is worth mentioning a few key movements which have arisen from the technological advancements and the new patterns of preferences for how to perform work. These movements are expected to play a significant role in the future of business, and Gen Y will play a key role in transforming them into business value.

Crowdsourcing and social media play huge roles in the lives of Gen Yers; behaviours that are starting to become (or already have become) embedded in our society. Answers and new opportunities are never far away. This openness is anticipated to spread to many parts of how business is done, creating work excitement for Gen Y due to a more collaborative and connected workplace. Gen Y gather information and opinions from a wide range of sources, such as Tripadvisor, in connection with where and how to travel and use their social network on Facebook for all kinds of purposes.

More and more businesses are also starting to adopt this way of gathering insights, e.g. LEGO, who use it for product development, and Coca Cola who run their open-sourced “Shaping a Better Future” challenge, asking entrepreneurs to create ventures for improving education, environment, health and youth employment. A recent study indicates that 68% of Gen Y will not make a significant decision before having run it by their network.

Gamification, which is growing in popularity, is a means of spicing up work tasks through game-like approaches in order to create incitements to improve performance in given areas. By providing a story-based experience rather than a “read the manual” approach, it is utilised for e.g. training, team building and innovation purposes. It provides performance-related metrics in real-time, transparency and is related to predetermined goals. The players can earn rewards, level up and build on chosen areas of expertise. An example is the Khan Academy’s math programme, which is basically a video game, but where the story is built up around solutions to equations. Under time pressure, players (students) solve problems and immediately get to know if they are right or wrong. In order to proceed to the next level, the previous questions have to be answered correctly. Correct answers accumulate points which leads to players achieving important milestones, each a success that can be transparently shared with the player’s Facebook network. Moreover, even the U.S. Army use gamification, not only for training purposes but also to attract new recruits and to promote  awareness.For Gen Y, purpose activates participation, collaboration sparks innovation and cultivation triggers devotion.

Big Data is currently bringing about the next era after mass customisation, which was made possible by the digital revolution, called mass personalisation. Utilising the vast masses of data being produced by individuals every day in order to uniquely and continuously modify products and services will provide a competitive advantage for those who manage it well. Gen Y were raised in times when access to information suddenly became available to the masses. They almost expect companies to know what they want, before they even know it themselves.

Such expectations have been successfully leveraged by for instance online retailer Amazon and music streaming provider Spotify, who without meeting their customers face-to-face can personalise the entire consumer experience by putting Big Data to work. Quite unlike previous generations, Gen Y are willing to share more information about themselves in order to make their lives easier and more permissive towards product and service suggestions based on their habits.

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