The Millennial Challenge: Generational Leadership Expectations

By Greg Holden, Business Writer

Today’s business executives are still adjusting to the behavior of the rising generation of leaders. Whether called “Gen Y’ers,” “millennials,” or “the trophy generation,” these individuals bring with them an unprecedented approach to employment that often carries the negative moniker of entitlement. But these millennials do represent the next wave; people who, 15 to 20 years from now, will hold top posts in the world’s corporations.

Over these next two decades, current and emerging leaders have a chance to reshape the role of leadership in R&D through collaboration and dialogue. A new IRI Research-on-Research (ROR) working group hopes to begin the conversation that will bridge the gap between these two generations of leaders.

Earlier this year, a PwC study into Gen Y work expectations found that most millennial employees (those born between 1980 and 1995), were far more interested in a healthy work-life balance that gave them greater flexibility and more emotional attachment to project-based work. This is in contrast to the previous generation which sees work out of college as a tough, daily grind with a potential promotion to partner or executive director later in their careers, so long as they remain loyal to the company.

Millenials do not see such a payoff as worth the grind needed to get there, according to the study, and are far less likely to remain loyal to any company that does not provide them with the work-life balance, or top level access, they feel entitled to—“entitlement,” again, being the significant term in this coming shift. So there exists a gap in generational expectations towards work and leadership. The retiring baby boomers built their careers through years of commitment and hard work while the millennial generation bounces from job to job in quick succession in the hopes of making the right connections and career leaps uncommon to previous generations. A tight economy may constrain much of this behavior for now, but you can be sure that it will come back in strength when the job market returns to normal.

How can our current leaders adjust their organizations for this transformation? A Wall Street Journal article (“The ‘Trophy Kids’ Go to Work”) noted that it was the baby boomers who raised the millennials to act the way they do—with trophies awarded just for showing up, high praise for each accomplishment, and very little criticism—so how can they now expect this generation to behave differently in the workplace than they did at home? So it isn’t about entitlement as much as it is about a changing view of work and personal stability that baby boomer parenting has fostered. But whether or not entitlement is the proper term for expressing concerns about the millennials, it remains an issue that this generation has drastically different views of what it means to go to work and build a career. These differences need to be brought into alignment with the overall structure of today’s organizations if we are to weather the coming changes with grace and agility.

Significantly, where the millennials’ heightened sense of entitlement gets them into the most trouble is in large-scale, research-based organizations where rapid career moves simply are not possible. This includes gas and oil companies, chemical companies, mining companies, and any other large-scale R&D organization that requires the mastering of complex skill sets and competencies in order to move up in the organizational hierarchy. Millennial scientists and researchers need to know that the professional behavior of their generation is counter-productive for many long-term, corporate R&D professions.

To address this difference in expectations, a 3-hour ROR working group will be hosting sessions at IRI’s Diamond Jubilee this May in Washington, DC. The group will be exploring the differences in generational expectations for emerging leaders at industrial R&D organizations. The short-term study will provide all Jubilee attendants with an opportunity to glimpse the expectations their mid-level managers hold regarding their future posts as company/lab leaders. Additionally, the group will explore how current leaders expect these emerging leaders to behave and perform in order to earn top posts.

The project will start and finish over the course of the Jubilee meeting, beginning with two 90-minute sessions in the afternoon of Tuesday, May 21st (at 12:45 PM and 2:30 PM). The first session will cover results from a pre-session survey sent out April 30th and will also discuss team leadership. The second will have several breakout sessions discussing aspects of technical, administrative, and corporate leadership.

After the data from these two sessions are compiled and analyzed, the working group, co-chaired by Sam Deutsche of ExxonMobil Downstream, Dawn Mason of Eastman Chemical, and Christopher Wieczorek of FM Global, and subject matter experts Corinne Post from Lehigh University and Alan Fusfeld from the Fusfeld Group, Inc., will present the findings for all meeting attendees on Thursday, May 23rd, and will produce a write-up of the findings for distribution. Join us this May for our Diamond Jubilee and bring along your emerging leaders so we can make this study the most accurate and meaningful possible for all in attendance.

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