Are millennials ready to lead?

Contrary to popular belief, millennials — the phrase is generally understood to mean those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, though there are no officially established dates — around the world are ambitious and eager to work hard to become leaders. They want to do it on their terms, though, in jobs that give them meaning and allow them to contribute to society.

In a global study on millennials conducted by the Insead Emerging Markets Institute, the HEAD Foundation and Universum, we surveyed more than 16,000 millennials in 43 countries to better understand the many workplace stereotypes attributed to them. Though there were differences among regions, 41% of all respondents confirmed that it was very important to them to become a leader or a manager, and younger millennials noted an interest in coaching and mentoring as part of a leadership role.

As important as becoming a manager is, however, only 24% strongly want a fast-track career with constant promotions. More millennials — 45% — want to focus on growing and learning new things, the second-most-important goal in their lives after work-life balance. A whopping 73% chose work-life balance over a higher salary, and 82% would pick a better work-life balance over their position in a company, whereas 42% said that they would prefer to have no job than have one they hate.

The biggest fear for 40% of respondents globally is getting stuck in a job with no development opportunities.

Because millennials will make up the majority of the work force in a decade or so from now, attracting, recruiting and retaining them will be essential for companies. Most important, as millennials increasingly take on leadership roles throughout the professional world, organisations should question whether they would be able to lead in the increasingly uncertain environment we’re facing and should groom them accordingly.

It’s important to understand what the perfect manager looks like to millennials, so that we can align our organisations accordingly and support their growth in becoming leaders in their own right. Their perceptions differ from region to region, but empowerment is important. In North America and in western Europe, millennials find it very important to be empowered by their managers, whereas those from central and eastern Europe and the Middle East feel less strongly about that.

Overall, millennials connect the term “empowerment” with the ability to make independent decisions. It is less about being empowered in the actual work or job, and more about having personal freedom at a more conceptual level. At the regional level North American millennials want to avoid being micromanaged, whereas those in the Middle East want their managers to have all the answers. Millennials also support a high-touch approach from their managers, with many expecting weekly feedback. That mindset is more prevalent among European, American and Middle Eastern respondents, a far cry from annual personal-development plans.

Millennials are not particularly eager to work with their friends, but most of them see teamwork as the way forward. Autonomy, however, is a subject that clearly divides West and East. In North America and Western Europe, it is not at the top of millennials’ minds, but being autonomous in one’s work is very important in Asia-Pacific countries and in central and eastern Europe.

We also asked them whether they saw their future as specialists or generalists. We found that in all regions apart from central and eastern Europe, those who prefer to become specialists are in the majority, possibly because they sense that being a generalist is associated with occupying a higher-risk position in times of uncertainty.

Employers can address the leadership ambitions of millennials not only by expanding or enhancing their internal leadership programs, but also by making different career paths available. They can provide specialist tracks, opening up avenues beyond regular, full-time positions, to ensure that employees can rotate between departments and job roles. Furthermore, as we examine the differences in the findings across regions, it’s clear that there will be significant need for cross-cultural awareness. Companies should allow millennials exposure to different regions and different functions before giving them senior management roles. Diversity also needs to apply to gender: The differences between the preferences of younger and older millennials are much wider than those between women and men. Therefore it will be essential to segment any efforts toward millennials according to age, not only according to gender or field of study.

It is also clear that employers will have to develop offerings aside from salary and benefits, such as learning opportunities, training programs and flexibility toward millennials’ ambitions. Organizations such as Procter & Gamble already make fast-track candidates rotate among categories, regions and functions before they move upward.

Looking at the diversity of views and preferences among millennials in 43 countries, some commonalities exist, but they shouldn’t be addressed as one group. Asia Pacific is perhaps the best example. Addressing Japanese millennials and Indian millennials as one group is bound to end badly. Therefore employers, and large multinationals in particular, should not jump to conclusions based solely on regional findings.

(Henrik Bresman is an associate professor of organizational behavior at the international business school Insead, and is academic director of the HEAD Foundation, a Singapore-based education think tank. Vinika Rao is the executive director of Insead's Emerging Markets Institute.)

© 2014 Insead

Insead Knowledge

The New York Times Syndicate

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