Leading a Gen Y Workforce
  • Managing people

Leading a Gen Y Workforce

Millennials want to be inspired and involved and need a different kind of leader


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Increasing digitalization is transforming our workplaces. This includes the relationships between organizational leaders and their employees. The Internet-born-and-raised employees present an especially difficult challenge for experienced (read: older) leaders.

Consider the case of the newly hired CEO. With nearly two decades of leadership in a traditional industrial context, she has taken the helm of a new type of company: an established but still relatively new player in the technology space. She welcomes the career challenge that this chance affords her, but she also recognizes that her former sector is very different from her new one.

More than just a different industry, this is a new organizational culture—one shaped by a younger and tech-savvy workforce. Raised in an interconnected world like no other generation before it, the so-called millennials expect a different kind of working world: one of impact, one of boundless opportunities, and one where ‘likes’ and ‘swipe right’ and ‘same-day delivery’ have tossed traditional models of engagement on their heads.

Dr. Nora Grasselli is a program director at ESMT Berlin, an international business school. There, she helps business executives understand and implement complex dynamics in their teams and personal leadership practice. Grasselli asked start-up leaders to answer this question: What would you advise such a leader about how she should lead a Generation Y workforce?

Build autonomous teams

The idea of cultivating autonomous work groups, while not an invention of the Internet Age, is still a relatively young concept in the working world. Agile and iterative software development and its subsequent influence on ‘lean’ business models have been perfect for showing the idea’s value—especially in giving rise to disruptive product and service innovations.

Niklas Östberg is the CEO and co-founder of Delivery Hero, an online food-ordering service operating in more than 40 countries. Having grown the company from a start-up of one employee to one of several thousand since 2011, Östberg believes that any successful leader of the Gen Y workforce must empower clearly defined and autonomous teams with the responsibility to succeed.

‘Let them be very free in the way they operate within the overall structure,’ advised Östberg.

Lead with vision

This is not about freeing them from organizational outcomes completely, notes Östberg. Instead, this autonomy provides a greater range of movement toward the achievement of company goals. Millennials need to see where their work fits within that bigger story—to understand the ‘why’ of all of their activity. Good leaders, in turn, need to understand their ‘why’-s to motivate Gen Y employees.

Research in 2013, by global performance-management consulting company Gallup, underscores this belief. In its report ‘Millennials Not Connecting With Their Company’s Mission’, Gallup noted that Gen Y workers are significantly more likely to be engaged with their work when the organization’s mission and vision is clear to them. Where not, there is demonstrably poor performance and high turnover rates among the millennial workforce.

‘Gen Y wants to be inspired and involved,’ agreed Heiko Genzlinger. He is the managing director of Score Media Group and the former CEO of the start-up Trademob, an international platform for mobile app advertising. He also knows large organizational structures as the former managing director of Yahoo! Germany. He believes that leaders who show teams that everyone matters, especially by including regular feedback, help them innovate as well as accept limiting business realities.  

‘We know that not everything is possible, but we can at least get close.’

Cultivate entrepreneurial cultures

Millennials are already familiar with key concepts of digitalization: big data analytics, the Internet of Things, cryptocurrencies, and more. But whether leading millennials or baby boomers, successful leaders must engender trust, cooperation, and shared purpose among their employees. Successful digital leaders must go that one step further—adapting their leadership style and organizational cultures to encourage diverse teams to harness the potential of digitalization.

‘An entrepreneurial spirit pushes things forward,’ noted Moritz Kreppel, the CEO and founder of Urban Sports Club, which offers a multi-partner sport and fitness membership platform. ‘The job of the CEO is to foster that spirit, enable the employees to contribute, and also to expect an entrepreneurial mindset.’

Hear more from these start-up leaders and ESMT Berlin in the video below:

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