Youth Is Wasted on the…

As global leadership trends younger, we should focus on the possibilities, not the gaps, say two Korn Ferry experts.



John Petzold and Raj Ramachandran are 30- and 40-something leaders, respectively, in the talent advisory space whose passions include learning, leadership development, and culture. 

Young leaders sure get a bad rap. According to one millennial workforce report, some 80% of the hiring managers interviewed considered millennials as too narcissistic. This and other perceived weaknesses were further articulated in a Harvard Business Review article: not being trusted because of a lack of experience and deep knowledge, not perceived as a role model because their path to success has come too quickly, and not sensitive to others’ needs because they just focus solely on their own goals.

But are organizations missing the point here? Certainly, it’s smart to be aware of any skill-set weakness among younger leaders. But we should be equally aware of their strengths. Executive development need not be solely remedial; rather, it should represent a merited and prudent investment. Their future is here and now, as millennials already represent the largest generational demographic in the workforce.

As younger leaders continue to ascend, professionally and politically, comparisons to the styles of previous generations grow outdated in a changing business climate. Organizations and cultures can improve engagement by harnessing and distributing a positive force for change. While young leaders have been the focus of much media consternation, studies also indicate that the next generation of leaders demonstrates impressive strengths in resiliency, learning agility, and courage. Their need for purpose, progress, and pace is quickly becoming the norm against which past leaders’ legacies will be judged.

Purpose. For many younger workers, it’s easy to get caught up in the minutia and lose sight of the bigger “why” of a company or simply the “why” of a particular task. This disconnect doesn’t serve young leaders in the workplace: Recent research suggests that millennials who find their work meaningful are six times more likely to stay at their places of employment than their peers. It’s important to understand your peoples’ drivers and tie it together with them, not for them. It’s as simple as asking what motivates them. If the research is right, they won’t lack the courage to tell you … and you might be surprised by the answer.

Progress. We define this as constantly striving to be better, and believe it to be a key value for young leaders. Younger leaders value growth and development more than previous generations of leadership, and are concerned less about personal and financial rewards. That means there’s a greater focus on learning new skills, gathering knowledge, and growing individually as a person and collectively as teams and organizations. Progress isn’t necessarily just about learning a new skill, it’s about the time we need to put into introspection and reflection, and being mindful about the consequences of our daily decisions, choices, and actions. It’s about being fearless and resilient in the face of dogma and doubters.

Pace. The digital age has ushered in the fastest-paced workplace the world has yet seen, but for digital natives, speed is the norm. With the shift to real-time feedback and quick decision-making, we must move with expedience and apply previously learned concepts quickly to new situations—a trait we index as “learning agility. It’s all about optimizing energy by using all available means to understand, learn, and improve. Why wait, a smart young leader might ask, for a weekly or quarterly review when you can text or pop into the boss’s office for more immediate updates? By adjusting to the speed of the digital era, companies can accelerate their young employees’ development and the pace of business simultaneously.

Older generations shouldn’t write off young leaders’ ideas just because they were shared via (gasp!) emoji. The thumbs up/thumbs down is as old as the Roman Empire—only the delivery method has changed.