Op-Ed: 5 ways millennial leaders are surprising

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The first to come of age in the internet era, millennials may be the most scrutinized generation in history. But whether you believe they will save us all or they're the worst workers in the history of the world, the unquestionable truth is that millennials — the oldest of whom are now in their mid-30s — are rapidly taking over in the leadership ranks.

As they barrel on toward the C-suite, will millennials' leadership style be a radical change in the way we work? Or are their leadership styles and values more traditional than they seem?

To find out the answer, Ron Williams, former CEO of Aetna and now the head of his own consulting company, RW2 Enterprises, commissioned The Conference Board and global leadership company DDI, to conduct a unique piece of research comparing millennial leaders to older generations of leaders and to current CEOs.

The results revealed in "Divergent Views/Common Ground: The Leadership Perspectives of C-Suite Executives and Millennial Leaders" were surprising: Millennial leaders didn't live up to many of the common assumptions about how their generation is going to lead.

Surprise #1: Millennial leaders are incredibly loyal & highly engaged in their jobs.

Despite millennials' bad reputation for job-hopping and low engagement in their roles, nearly 44 percent of that generation's leaders plan to stay at their current companies for more than 15 years, compared to just 29 percent of older leaders who plan to stay that long. Similarly, millennial leaders rated their level of engagement at 3.7 on average, which is comparable to the 3.75 average response provided by leaders from other generations.

Of course, young leaders' loyalty and engagement doesn't come without strings attached. Over and over during the interviews, millennial leaders reported that they are hungry for growth and expect to move up the ladder. Without a path to new opportunities, they will quickly jump ship.

Surprise #2: Leadership development preferences are the same between leaders of different generations

Just as leaders have for decades, millennial leaders believe on-the-job learning through developmental assignments is the most effective way to learn. Predictably, these young leaders also value coaching, both from their managers and from internal coaches and mentors.

Leaders from all generations also have a healthy respect for the effectiveness of traditional learning, such as formal workshops and classroom training. Surprisingly, however, millennial leaders rank relatively new modes of formal learning (social, online, mobile) near the bottom for effectiveness, showing no more hunger for those forms of development than older leaders.

Surprise #3: Current CEOs value self-expression more than millennial leaders

When asked to rate different values, millennial leaders, non-millennial leaders and current CEOs were largely in agreement. All of them placed the highest value on "Ideas, Technology and Rational Problem Solving," and likewise believed in "Actively Helping Others and Improving Society." They universally shunned "History, Tradition and Old-Fashion Virtues." And contrary to the popular view of ego-driven leaders, all leaders rated "Fame, Visibility and Publicity" at the very bottom.

Two differences are surprising, however. Current CEOs placed more of an emphasis on "Creative and Artistic Self-expression" than any other group of leaders surveyed. On the other hand, CEOs place less value on "Business Activities, Money, and Financial Gain."

Surprise #4: Millennial leaders don't care about a "fun" office; they'd rather have flexibility and access to mentoring

The clichéd depiction of a workplace that appeals to younger workers is one with an open floorplan, perhaps access to snacks and cappuccinos, and very little hierarchy. But it turns out millennial leaders didn't really care about those things. Instead, they gave far higher marks to "Flexible Policies for Vacation/Work Schedules" and "Flexible Options for Working Remotely/Collaborating Virtually" — the same top two characteristics identified by older leaders. And, like current CEOs, millennial leaders see tremendous value in mentorship from senior leaders.

Surprise #5: Millennial leaders think soft skills are the critical skills of the future

Among a generation known for interacting with one another online, millennial leaders think that "Leadership Impact, Interpersonal Skills" and "Global/Cultural Acumen" are the top skills that will be required by future CEOs. Meanwhile, current CEOs valued harder skills, such as "Critical Thinking, Stakeholder Management" and "Business/Management Skills" as the most critical.

The study shows that the future of workplaces led by millennials may be different than many people expected. Contrary to many of the headline-grabbing articles, millennial leaders are both loyal and hard working. They are highly engaged, highly ambitious and eager to learn. They appear to have a good balance between the need for corporate responsibility and profitability. If today's senior leaders offer the mentorship, flexibility and guidance the younger generation craves, they can confidently expect that, when the time comes, millennial leaders will be ready — and possibly even more prepared than the previous generations — to step up.

Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D., is senior vice president at DDI and co-author, with Tacy M. Byham, Ph.D., of "Your First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others." Rebecca L Ray, Ph.D., is executive vice president, knowledge organization, for The Conference Board. She is the author of numerous articles and books, including her co-authored works, "Measuring Leadership Development" (McGraw-Hill, 2012), "Measuring the Success of Leadership Development" (ATD, 2015), and "Measuring the Success of Employee Engagement" (ATD, 2016). DDI is the research partner of CNBC for the annual Asia Business Leaders Awards (ABLA).