Empowering the leaders of tomorrow

In the midst of global instability, the next generation of leaders need the right supports to feel empowered to make a difference. However, those supports might not be what you think. Here’s what next-generation leaders need most and how organizations can support them, writes, Stephanie Wormington

Think back to your first substantial leadership role. How often did you feel like your voice was heard? Were you able to make important decisions, either on your own or with others? Most important, did you feel like you were making a difference in your position?

Regardless of your profession, your response to these questions is critical because it reflects whether you were empowered. Empowered leaders are included in important decision-making conversations, supported in making critical decisions, and enabled to make a positive impact within their team, community or organization. When leaders are empowered, they are more likely to feel valued as an employee, find meaning in their work and remain committed to their organization. Empowered leaders can also inspire broad organization-wide changes, from increased trust and helping to performance and creativity.

While empowerment is important for leaders of all ages and experience levels, it is essential to foster among the next generation of the workforce (most immediately, millennials and Gen Z). With ever-increasing globalization and digital fluency, next-generation workers face more opportunities than ever before. They are also experiencing a range of new challenges, including navigating economic turmoil and job scarcity during a global pandemic. In a time when workers and the workforce are experiencing significant changes, providing next-generation leaders with the right supports is more critical than ever. But what do young leaders need to be successful, and what can organizations do to support them?

As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, the Center for Creative Leadership embarked on a large-scale effort to learn more about young workers’ leadership experiences and levels of empowerment. More than 10,500 Gen Z and millennials (ages 18-30) from 20 countries shared their perspectives through surveys, interviews and working sessions. Together, they represented different social identities, work experiences, leadership levels and reasons to pursue a leadership role (or not). This work is ongoing, with thousands of young leaders in 30 additional countries being surveyed in 2021.

While there is still much to understand, we have uncovered several key insights into what young leaders need most in order to feel empowered.

Dispelling myths: What factors are and are not holding next-generation leaders back?

Just as important as identifying the supports that young leaders need is clarifying what they do not name as barriers or challenges to being empowered, to maximize organization and manager focus on the things that truly move the needle. Across surveys and interviews, four key learnings emerged that challenged myths about the next generation of leaders.

Myth No. 1: Next-generation workers are not interested in being leaders.

Over one-third (37 percent) of the young adults we heard from currently held a leadership position, with an additional 41 percent aspiring to be a leader in the future. This left only 22 percent who were not interested in leading.

Myth No. 2: Next-generation leaders are not empowered in their roles.

A whole 90 percent of current leaders felt like they made a positive impact on their organization, and nearly three-quarters (73 percent) were confident that their voice is heard on a regular basis.

Myth No. 3: Next-generation workers need early leadership experiences to be empowered.

Nearly 78 percent of our sample had participated in some sort of leadership development activity, such as an internship or shadowing program. This experience alone was not enough to predict whether someone would pursue a leadership position or feel empowered in that leadership role.

Myth No. 4: Next-generation workers are not willing to put in the time to be effective leaders.

When asked about reasons that might prevent them from pursuing a leadership role, fewer than 25 percent of our sample indicated that being a leader would take up too much of their time. In fact, lack of time was one of the least frequently cited reasons for not becoming a leader.

If lack of desire, experience or time are not holding back next-generation leaders, what factors matter most? While there are many factors that drive career decisions, our work highlighted three critical factors.

1. Perceived value of being a leader

“Why do I want to do this?” is one of the fundamental drivers of human behavior and can be a powerful lever for change. According to research by Gallup, sense of purpose is one of the top three drivers of employee engagement and retention, particularly among millennials. In our sample, finding value in being a leader was the biggest differentiator of whether someone held a leadership role and whether they felt empowered in their position. Empowered leaders were also twice as likely as their less-empowered counterparts to see the value in being a leader for their daily life. Importantly, value can take many forms. In our work, next-generation workers’ top five reasons to become a leader were to: (1) to make a contribution to society, (2) to support myself financially, (3) to learn things that will help me make a positive impact in the world, (4) to gain skills that I can use in a job that helps others and (5) to prepare for a future career.

2. Lack of psychological safety

Psychological safety is foundational for innovation, learning and performance. However, many first-time leaders consider failure to be unacceptable in the workplace, preventing them from trying new approaches or taking risks. More than half (52 percent) of current leaders in our sample agreed that it was not safe to make mistakes or take risks as a leader, indicating low psychological safety. This was especially pervasive among first-time and less-empowered leaders. The fear of making mistakes may carry additional stigma for workers from historically disenfranchised and underrepresented backgrounds who are concerned their work could be viewed as representative for a larger demographic and any missteps could contribute to hiring or opportunity biases.

3. Financial insecurity

Our social identities and life experiences are critical factors that shape our professional aspirations, opportunities and barriers. While race, ethnicity, age and gender are often considered social identities, financial security is a critical but often-overlooked dimension of our experience. In our sample, we found virtually no difference between Gen Z and millennials’ leadership experience, motivation or levels of empowerment. However, consistent differences emerged related to perceived financial security. Those who reported they could not make ends meet financially were less likely to be leaders, feel empowered in leadership roles or plan to become a leader in the future. By contrast, those who did not have to worry about money were the most empowered and likely to be leaders.

What can organizations do to support next-generation leaders?

Our research identified three concrete ways organizations can support next-generation leaders.

1. Reinforce next-generation leaders’ values. Do you know what drives your employees to put in their best effort at work every day? Chances are it might not be as straightforward as you think. Even more so, telling your employees and team members why they should care can backfire. Make space to let employees reflect on their “why,” and help them connect that greater purpose to their work tasks. For example, can you help frame a client report as an opportunity to gain new skills and share learnings that will benefit others in your industry?

2. Align employee and organizational values. Value-based leaders and organizations inspire change because they keep their core mission at the forefront of everything they do. However, compelling evidence from first-generation college students suggests that hearing from older students with similar backgrounds on how their background both helped and hindered their time in college closed the achievement gap and increased well-being.

3. Take the risk out of risk-taking. Changing the narrative around the role of risk-taking and mistakes in leadership could reduce a salient barrier to youth empowerment. Newer leaders may benefit from scaffolded development experiences that are supportive and challenging. Having established leaders share their own challenges can also normalize failure. One innovative example from academia is an established researcher who published an article in the journal Nature on his curriculum vitae of failures. By recording and sharing rejections, leaders can make their mistakes visible and help younger leaders avoid equating setbacks with failure.

Without question, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the workforce in a way that will have ripple effects for years to come. However, the new normal also provides an opportunity to reflect and reconsider our approach to supporting the leaders of tomorrow. By acknowledging next-generation workers’ experiences and aligning with their values, we have an unprecedented opportunity to create workplaces where leaders are invested in their role and empowered to make meaningful change.

Stephanie Wormington is a senior research scientist and manager of global strategic research at the Center for Creative Leadership. Her current research focuses primarily on promoting equitable and inclusive organizational cultures, exploring collective leadership through networks, and enhancing motivation and empowerment for leaders across their professional journeys. She was formerly an assistant professor at the University of Virginia.

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