Leading millennials: When all else fails, rely on good judgement

By John Helmer June 22, 2015
photo of Paul Rudd

Paul Rudd of Pragma Consultancy

Everyone is agreed, it seems: Millennials have a different attitude to authority. But this widely observed generational shift it is too often caricatured as a blanket disrespect for authority figures and established institutional sources. So millennials are spoiled by their parents and don’t have enough respect for their elders? Well that’s more or less what my grandfather said about me – only I happen to be a boomer.

The point is, when talking about Millennials we really shouldn’t get matters of genuine social change tangled up with perceptions that are in reality more to do with lifestage and intergenerational conflict.

To help us disentangle myth from reality on millennials we talked to Paul Rudd of Pragma Consultancy, who has been building great leadership programmes since before some millennials were born. And Paul had interesting insights to share from his work with corporates.

For the time-challenged … key points

I talked to Paul Rudd in the course of my researches for Lumesse’s upcoming insight paper on leadership learning and millennnials. Paul has a wealth of experience in organisational learning, and here are a few of the key points that came out of our conversation with regards to millennials and leadership learning.

  1. Leaders can no longer claim respect based on a store of accumulated knowledge: judgment and other experiential factors will be more significant for millennials
  2. In the corporate world we have seen the rise of the ‘Hero CEO’, providing a perhaps troubling context within which millennials are learning about leadership
  3. Millennials are potentially the biggest beneficiaries of a massive expansion in networked learning – which organisations are failing to tap into at present

1. Experience and judgment, not your own fact-hoard, is the key to leader credibility

We often hear that, above all, leadership has to be authentic nowadays. That for millennials in particular, respect has to be earned and is not automatically conferred any more by virtue of rank, privilege or institutional endorsement. However, Paul highlighted a particular aspect of this shift that has to do with the rise of digital technology.

The vast amount of information available on the internet to anyone with a browser who can use a search engine means that the professional ‘expert’ can no longer claim authority solely by virtue of their specialist knowledge of a given field.

Doctors have been reporting for a while that the patients who show up in their surgeries tend to have googled their symptoms beforehand. While this can result in patients demanding to be treated for dengue fever when all they have in fact is a very bad hangover, it is conceivable that someone who spends half an hour researching a particular, rare condition might know more about than their GP. The recent sad case of Bronte Doyne, who was told by health professionals to ‘stop googling’, but did in fact turn out to have liver cancer, of which she subsequently died, shows that the clinician can sometimes be wrong and the patient right.

This effect is seen across a whole slew of professional disciplines such as law, finance and many others. We no longer stand in awe of people who know more than us, when the total sum of what can be known is available to pretty much everyone. This has a general effect on attitudes towards authority, but is particularly strong among millennials.

The authority of leaders for the connected generation vests more strongly in other things, such as experience, judgment, the ability to interpret the facts, form a decision – and act on that decision.

2. Rise of the Hero CEO

The rewards for top corporate leaders are greater nowadays, but so are the expectations – and the timescales between hirings and firings have got shorter. We’re living in the age of the ‘Hero CEO’ – expected to produce instant results, to come in and turn ailing organisations around overnight – to do magic. But the hero can quickly be stripped of his honours (it’s usually a he) if he doesn’t perform. Like football managers, Hero CEOs can be chopped as soon as results turn bad.

This pattern of high reward and high expectation forms part of the context in which millennials study leadership within the corporate context – whether they react positively or negatively to the stereotype. It is a trend we might not applaud, but one we have to acknowledge as a feature of the landscape of corporate leadership.

3. The explosion in networked learning

Reflecting on the process of evaluating face-to-face leadership-focused events he has run in the past – of the intensive, 3-day variety – Paul reports that he has seen most value in the networking that happens during breaks and in the evenings, and through facilitated discussions; value that for him is greater than that derived from the more formal, instructional parts of the event. And what the digital revolution has accomplished, in Paul’s view, is an explosion of exactly this type of network learning.

Instead of happening just on an away week, at a specific time and place, Web 2.0 and social media allows this network learning to happen everywhere, all the time. This is the world that millennials inhabit, and organisations by and large are missing a quite massive opportunity, in Paul’s view, by failing effectively to tap into and benefit from the trend.

This constant, always-on networking is not only a part of how Millennials learn, but a part of how they lead as well – a subject we’ll be exploring further in this series of interviews, with Colonel Garry Hearn.

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