Opinion: Our Future Leaders—What They're Really Like

Young Employees
Young Employees

If you’ve been thinking that “millennials” are the “me generation,” think again.

An IBM study shows that far from being self-centered, today’s college students see the fault lines in our shared planet as their generation’s call to action.

Is the millennial generation, a “me generation” or a “we generation?”

Reviews are mixed, but as we prepare for the future it’s important to sort out where this generation is heading. Sheer numbers will make them a potent force — within the next few years they will hold roughly half of jobs in the world. I find good reason to believe that millennials will marshal their raw demographic power in pursuit of positive change.

Teaching college students for the last decade, I’ve often thought of them as the “screen generation”. They’ve grown up surrounded by TVs, laptops, cell phones and iPods. Vivid, exciting and constantly changing, images from these screens are hard to ignore. What’s more, they bring viewers close to events they would otherwise never see — war and famine, tsunamis and earthquakes, social and environmental disasters.

What’s the cumulative impact?

Psychological research indicates that our empathy is aroused when encountering those we know well, those who’ve had an experience similar to our own, and those we can see right in front of us – even virtually. Despite a recent study suggesting that millennials are much less empathetic than previous generations, I’m not convinced that a surfeit of technology, or overexposure to images of suffering, has inured them to a sense of shared responsibility.

In fact, here’s the good news: business research shows that, in thinking about business and careers, today’s college students are concerned about people who live and work in distant locations. What’s more, they are ready and eager to act on their concerns.

A new kind of global sensibility

IBM’s recent study, “Inheriting a complex world: future leaders envision sharing the planet”shows that today’s college students are much more focused than today’s business leaders on globalization and sustainability issues. And when asked how their careers will differ compared to previous generations, they overwhelmingly express their desire to do a better job of addressing these challenges.

Over the past decade I have noticed a subtle, yet powerful change in my students: they have elevated the role of business. They readily embrace the notion of the triple bottom line – people, planet, profit – and are seeking companies that share these same objectives. A few years ago this meant corporate philanthropy and community service. But now students want to make a difference by what they do every day in their careers. They want to work for organizations that weave sustainability into their core strategy.

"Now students want to make a difference by what they do every day in their careers. They want to work for organizations that weave sustainability into their core strategy."" -College of William & Mary, Christoper Adkins

So it’s not surprising to me that the IBM study finds future leaders to be so concerned about what’s happening in the developing world. Or that they expect global market shifts between mature and emerging markets to have major impact on what they do at work. For them, globalization and sustainability issues are two sides of the same coin, and together form the basis for a distinct generational commitment.

Developing the next generation of leaders.

Executives who shape the working lives of interns and new hires may remember with some chagrin how “paying your dues” was frequently a career requirement. Young people entering the workforce today feel a different kind of obligation.

If we listen closely to them, we’ll detect a fierce optimism in the face of complexity. They are confident that collaboration, science and technology can provide tools for solving otherwise intractable problems in an interconnected world.

Given the unique experiences and signature outlook of their youngest colleagues, how can leaders from earlier generations best nurture that commitment?

  1. First, current leaders should recognize that millennials are multi-dimensional. For many, their youthful ambition is not simply about getting a job or winning another award. They want “meaningful” work that lets them use their talents for the good of the business and the planet. Organizations should clearly and convincingly demonstrate just how the job at hand makes a difference in the “real world.”
  2. Second, today’s organizations should make time for meaningful conversation and mentoring. Yes, young leaders want to be heard, but they also want to learn from seasoned leaders. They want to be inspired by professionals who have a broader vision of business, and learn from them ways to balance the challenges of economic, environmental and social sustainability.
  3. Lastly, and most importantly, today’s leaders can help millennials translate ideals into action. That happens most effectively when young people work in their local communities, or when their schools partner with businesses to tackle industry challenges, such as overfishing of regional waterways. Working alongside business and community leaders, students get a taste of real challenges involved in sustainable business practices. Such problem-solving helps check unrealistic expectations while still fueling their desire to make a difference.

If millennials have been shaped by what they’ve seen on so many screens, then the next chapter in their journey will be shaped by what they see on the job. By working side by side with them, current leaders can personally and convincingly demonstrate what can be achieved when all generations take responsibility for the planet and its people.

Christopher Adkins is director of the Undergraduate Business Program at the College of William & Mary (Mason School of Business) in Williamsburg, Virginia.