How Gen Y is changing the way we lead

Gabrielle Dolan provides tips for leading what will soon become the dominant generation in the workforce – and busts some myths in the process

How Gen Y is changing the way we lead

Business Strategy


Like it or not, Generation Y is changing the way we lead. By 2020, the majority of the workforce will be composed of Generation Y. Consequently, current leaders need to adapt, or they run the risk of becoming outmoded. Many senior leaders I work with tell me that one of their biggest challenges is to manage and lead Generation Y.
Generation Y encompasses people born between 1980 and 1995 (although some ranges include people born as late as the early 2000s). The label followed on from the previous generation’s label of Gen X, and while it is commonly used, this group is often also referred to as millennials or the ‘dot-com generation.’ If you’re wondering why the classification for generations went from ‘Baby Boomers’ to ‘X,’ it’s due to Canadian author Douglas Coupland and his book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. The book was, ironically, about a generation that defied labels by stating, “Just call us X.”
Seeing that Generation Y isn’t going away, judging them will not help. We need to understand them and adjust the way we lead them accordingly, in order to guide organizations that flourish.
They have great expectations
Generation Y wants to be challenged, they want to be inspired, and they will not accept the status quo. It’s this innate sense of curiosity and their ability to question tradition that has given them the moniker ‘Generation Why’. With so many options available to this generation, if leaders are not providing a workplace that challenges and inspires them, they will seek to work somewhere that does.
This generation has different expectations and beliefs about what they want out of work from their employers. Yes, they want to achieve and be rewarded financially, but it is not just about that. They are looking for greater fulfilment, more personal development and opportunities to cultivate a well-rounded life. More important, they genuinely want to make a difference and therefore take corporate responsibility very seriously.
Aaron is an example of this. He is a lawyer who worked for a global consulting firm for five years. The incentive for the long hours that came with the role was the possibility of a very highly paid job. But he told me that he came to realize that nothing about the senior partners’ life was attractive to him. Yes, they earned a lot of money, but he decided he wanted more than that. He is still a lawyer, but he now works for a company that has a purpose that he fully believes in.
Companies and leaders need to find ways to meet the demands of this generation’s expectations, or they will risk losing them.
They are loyal
Due to their tendency to change companies at a much faster rate than previous generations, Generation Y has at times been unfairly labelled as disloyal. However, they are simply responding to the environment they were raised in. Many members of Generation Y saw their parents lose their jobs, after decades of service, in the recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s. After witnessing the fallout from these job losses, they are not inclined to provide the same level of loyalty to companies that their parents did. When their earliest exposure to the business environment has taught them that the world offers little job security, can you blame them for changing roles more frequently than previous generations?
However, just because they are more likely to change employers (the average employee tenure in 1960 was 15 years; today it is four), this should not be seen as a sign of disloyalty. Gen Ys are loyal. They are loyal to friends, and they are loyal to brands. You only have to be outside an Apple store the day before a new iPhone is released to see evidence of this loyalty in the queues that snake down the street and around the block.
Leaders need to make Generation Y employees feel valued. They need to be more inclusive and transparent in the way they communicate and lead. They need to provide more regular feedback to this generation than they provided to previous generations.
And they need to be more real. This generation is screaming out for leaders to be more real – and they are getting a lot of support from the members of other generations, who see the value in people who lead with authenticity and transparency.
They want to have fun
Generation Y employees expect to enjoy their jobs. The thought of staying in jobs they hate is absurd to them, and you really can’t blame them. A mindset of ‘If you’re having fun, you can’t be working’ will not serve you well if you are leading this generation.
When it comes to having fun at work, I think we can learn some important lessons from the Danes. Many words exist in one language and not in another language. One such word exists in the Danish language but not in English – arbejdsglæde. Arbejde means ‘work’ and glæde means ‘happiness’, so arbejdsglæde is ‘happiness at work’. This word also exists in the other Nordic languages but does not exist in any other language group.
As a leader, you don’t have to turn into a stand-up comic, but thinking that you can’t have fun at work is misguided and, I would argue, not realistic. This approach normally comes from a leader who is perhaps trying to be the serious boss they think they are expected to be. Being a strict, staid boss is an outdated concept. Being more relaxed and open to the concept of fun is more real and gives you a greater chance of connecting and engaging the hearts and minds of the people that work for you.
Generation Y is changing the leadership game. They are looking for leaders who are more collaborative, flexible and inclusive. They are looking for leaders who are more real. Leaders need to adapt to this style or die.

This is a slightly amended version of an article written by Gabrielle Dolan,author of Ignite: Real Leadership, Real Talk, Real Results. It has been shortened to make it suitable for web publishing.

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