I’ve been doing some reading on Generation Y. You know – the kids born from 1976 to 1995, inclusive. The kids who’ve grown up in the digital age. The kids who can’t remember a time before cable television, self-service gas stations, video games, and computers. The kids who have no idea what a turntable is, since the music they listen to fits into a 1.5 inch square piece of machinery called a “Shuffle” (mine’s pink, by the way). Vinyl is what we use to make pleather pants, not music!

There are a lot of great things coming out of Generation Y. These kids have a deep social conscience – they care about issues beyond themselves, and understand that they are vital members of a world outside their bedroom windows. These kids are team players – they understand the value of collaboration in problem-solving, and they work together to develop faster, better, smarter solutions. They understand technology, and the benefits it can bring to their social and professional interactions.

Bob Morison, Tammy Erickson, and Ken Dychtwald pointed out in their 2006 book Workforce Crisis that there are several key things to remember when dealing with younger workers. Young workers, according to Morison, Erickson, and Dychtwald share the following traits:

  • Independent, not only intellectually (as the baby boomers tend to be) but also functionally, having “grown up fast” and managed themselves from a relatively young age.
  • Situational more than structured, and so they feel free to ignore policies and procedures that they find restrictive.
  • “Digital” in how they process information and communicate, and sometimes digital at the expense of interpersonal (by their parents’ definition of the word, anyway)
  • Diverse and comfortable with diversity, so that one-size-fits-all policies and management methods will likely alienate significant numbers of them. (Dychtwald, et. al., Workforce Crisis, 2006, p. 106)

Morison, Erickson, and Dychtwald go on to explain that many employers may perceive these characteristics as indicative of a poor work ethic. Without a true understanding of the circumstances that have led Generation Y workers to adopt these characteristics, employers are doomed to what the authors termed “endless churn.” Workforce Crisis argues that Generation Y employees won’t change their workplace behavior, so employers who don’t change the workplace (or at least meet the Generation Y worker halfway) will continually suffer from the inability to hold on to the brightest workers.

While I agree that there are significant benefits to opening up traditional organizations to welcome (and support) the collaborative, innovative efforts of the younger workforce, I see a problem that’s not being addressed by current efforts to welcome Generation Y employees into dynamic companies. I see a lack of leaders.

My husband volunteers time each college admissions season to interview candidates who have applied to a very prestigious technical university in the Boston area. This school looks for more than just a high GPA (the admissions office is, frankly, inundated with high GPA candidates). This university looks for students who show leadership, drive, and initiative. What Tom is finding, though, is that the students he has been interviewing over the past several years have shown a glaring lack of those three important qualities. Tom will be the first to tell you that these are bright kids – they’ve done a lot of interesting things in their academic careers – but he has only interviewed one student who has gone out and actually shown initiative to do something other than what he’d been assigned. These kids have a ton of teamwork, given that their teachers recognize the value of team projects in building strong workers. But all their projects have been collaborative. No one has been groomed to be a leader. No one understands how to make the tough choices that have to be made, because no one has been asked to take on roles where making the tough choices is required. No one has been asked to be a LEADER.

In short – Generation Y is suffering from leaderphobia. They are afraid to seek out opportunities for advancement, because the value of teamwork has been drilled into their heads. They’re perfectly willing to do as they’re asked, but shy away from finding new opportunities to provide valuable, bottom-line benefits. Because of their ingrained sense of social justice, they don’t want to make it appear that they might be more talented than their teammates. The problem is, there are kids out there who are genuinely more talented, and we’re not taking advantage of what they have to offer.

An entire generation is being groomed to be collaborative, and we’re losing sight of the fact that, without leaders, we’re doomed to failure. Our organizations will crumble because no one is there to lead with a clear vision of the future.

Fast-forward 30 years. The Baby Boomers will be long gone, their ashes spread across oceans and over mountain tops. My generation will be enjoying our active older adulthood, playing golf at Del Webb’s Sun City, and drinking margaritas on our lanais. The Generation Y workforce will be in charge of the economy. Their efforts will put bread on the table of the world. But, without leaders, what will we have? Chaos? Well, maybe not chaos, but certainly not a clear direction, a clear vision for the future. And it will affect an organization’s ability to remain competitive on a global scale.

Leaders are born, not made. But it’s up to us to recognize the leadership potential in our youth, and do what it takes to guide and foster the natural leaders. What can we do to ensure that these talented leaders of tomorrow are not lost in a sea of mediocrity? Well, I’m not one to pose a question without some thoughts on answers, so here goes…

  • Establish well-defined mentor programs within organizations. As leaders are identified, they are matched with executives who can help them understand their potential and use it to make the organization a better, more profitable place. Many companies have been doing this for years, either officially or unofficially, and have been able to grow strong leaders with a deep sense of loyalty, to help the organization move forward. It’s time for all companies to understand the benefits of mentorship to their future success.
  • Make sure that there are roles within teams that are available to those employees who show the natural tendency towards leadership. Even a small team could benefit from the leadership of a younger employee. Providing opportunities to lead particular efforts – for example, setting up a team wiki, or developing a peer code review protocol – can open up avenues for natural leaders to excel.
  • Promote individual accountability. It is important that the team succeeds, but it is also important that each team member be held responsible for items relating to that success. If organizations promote individual, as well as team, accountability, they will be expanding workers’ mindsets from total groupthink into a more balanced team/individual outlook.
  • Reward innovation and leadership throughout an organization. Workforce Crisis points out that Generation Y employees are motivated by rewards, so organizations should look for unique ways to reward the desired leadership behaviors. It doesn’t always have to be about money – natural leaders are often more motivated by opportunities than they are by cold, hard cash.

What are some other ways we can encourage the development of leadership in today’s younger workers? Let’s take some of the best practices that the Generation Y workforce provides (openness and collaboration) and use them to come up with solutions to make our organizations stronger in the future.