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Leadership: Why the Millennials ‘tipping point’ may be our Saviour

Millennials Scrabble tiles

I believe we are heading towards a new era in the way we manage our businesses. Bold statement for an intro to a blog you may think? Allow me to explain: The models in place in most established companies have hardly adapted much since the beginning of the 20th century. They were designed to fit a world where the pace was slower and markets were nicely defined, we understood who our competitors were. It was ok to push decisions up a well defined chain of command and back down again as there was time to do that. All was as it was.

But that’s not true I hear you cry, structures are flatter now, we have matrix organisations and employee groups to help management decide what to do. And yet most structures are in some way top down. The so called pyramid of ignorance is alive and well in many big companies with the salary structures to match. And by the way, I’ve seen recent examples in the Media and Financial Services sectors where a £200 expense went up 3 organisational levels to a C level executive for approval. You may have seen examples of that too. So we really aren’t that flat are we?

That luxury is no longer available to us. Smart companies are doing things differently now – think Spotify, Gore and Associates, Apple, Saleseforce, Zara… I could go on. Eventually we’ll all have to.

Think you are immune somehow? Woolworths, Kodak, BHS, EMI, Nokia: all names you will doubt recognise. What did they have in common? They thought they couldn’t fail. And they were wrong. In some way or another, they didn’t adapt to their environment quickly enough.

Technology and globalisation will continue to increase the scale and pace of change. 3D printing, AI, Internet of Things…all have the potential to more or less wipe out or at least fundamentally change whole industries, never mind the companies in them.

Still feeling comfortable?

As if that wasn’t enough we’ve now reached a tipping point with a new generation of the workforce called the millennials. As an aside – not sure who a millennial is well check out the interview we shared recently: @applied_change

Why is this important? Because for various reasons they have different expectations about the world of work and what it means to them. They will challenge the way we lead and manage them and we’ll need to be ready to adapt if we are to continue to attract at retain the skills needed.

I’m a rampant optimist. I think that when taken together, this presents a huge opportunity for any business that wants to be around for the long term, and to make the time we all spend at work far more enjoyable. But we first need to forget all the things we think we know about leadership.

  • A leader is the person at the top
  • A leader is charismatic, charming and seems larger than life
  • A leader has great judgement and incredible insight
  • A leader is a certain personality type and easily recognisable
  • A leader is tough on those around them and demands excellence
  •  A leader is ruthless and drives relentlessly for results
  • A leader is sometimes a bit scary and can make us feel uncomfortable

This is all very well you may think and yes, you probably went over all this at business school, so what’s new?

Well here’s a thing: isn’t it strange how, despite what we all know, “leaders” in many of the largest businesses have a lot in common with that list. In fact, studies have shown that strong narcissistic and / or psychopathic tendencies tend to be very prevalent in the senior levels of many large and well-established companies.

I wonder whether one person really does make all the difference or is it the team that happened to perform well on their watch? Are they, in fact, just another piece in the jigsaw.

Studies have also shown there is no such thing as the “perfect” leader, they come in all shapes and sizes. Indeed no one person could possibly have all the desired characteristics, as some are contradictory. All leaders are just like the rest of us, stronger in some areas and weaker in others. The sustainably successful companies in future will increasingly recognise that it is the balance of skills rather than just a few individuals that will define long term success.

Leadership in my view is really about a company using all the skills and personality types available (different shaped jigsaw pieces) and putting them together in such a way that the objectives of the business are realised.

Maybe millennials are forcing us to think differently and not just do something just because and we will start to question things again.