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Filling the Leadership Pipeline: Developing the Reluctant Emerging Leader

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A few years ago, I led a leadership development program for senior leaders in a large multinational organization. The generational make-up of the participants was Baby Boomer and Gen X. An interesting theme emerged during our discussions about succession planning: these senior managers were having trouble filling their leadership pipeline with successors. Why? Because, they said, for many qualified young professionals, formal leadership had lost its luster and was perceived instead as an exhausting, thankless role.

Leadership has an image problem amongst Millennials and that signals trouble for today's executives. According to Lauren Rikleen, who has studied workplace demographics for Boston College's Center for Work and Family there won't be enough members of the Gen X population to fill anticipated leadership roles in the next decade.

Yet, Millennials have ambition. According to research in Bentley University's white paper, 65 percent said that being "successful in a high-paying career or profession" was either extremely or very important. The drive is there for this generation, so why the reluctance to take on a larger leadership role?

Young professionals do aspire to leadership roles -- just not the ones that their older Baby Boomer colleagues have coveted so fiercely. Take for example, Sara, a Learning and Development employee in the financial industry. Sara, who is six years into her career, told me, "Many of my colleagues in senior leadership positions seem to wear their long work hours as a 'badge of honor.' Even if they're not physically in the building, they are constantly connected via their technology. I get emails at all hours of the night and day from some of these leaders." I asked Sara for a perception check: does she believe that in order to be a successful senior leader at her firm, the long hours are a requirement? Yes, she said.

Sara, a talented Millennial, doesn't aspire to a leadership opportunity that the typical Baby Boomer jumped all over two decades ago. But would she like to lead? Most definitely, she said, but only if there would be space for her family obligations.

Here are three suggestions for how today's executives can remake the image of leadership responsibilities in a way that appeals to tomorrow's leaders:

Change the way we define what it is to be a leader

While some aspects of leadership are timeless, today's perception of what leaders "look like" is changing. From a demographic perspective, the American workforce is more culturally diverse, technologically savvy, and gender-balanced. So, if your company's executive suite is still a fraternity of white guys, that probably won't be very appealing to the Millennial generation.

Beyond demographics lies an equally compelling notion: what does it mean to be a leader? Fellow Huffington Post blogger Trish Tchume offered up this observation about what it is to be a leader in her "Field Guide for Millennial Leadership."

Ms. Tchume says that beyond the needed systemic structures to advance aspiring Millennial leaders, "A much more personal, individual challenge will be for each of us to make peace with our current, often-heroic mental models of who and what leadership looks like." Yes, the image of the hero-leader has to go. It's an outdated mode of leadership that Millennials, who thrive on collaboration, simply can't relate to.

Get clear about what younger workers want in career advancement.

Sometimes generational communication misfires because the others' viewpoint is missed entirely. This is very clear when it comes to what current executives think their younger employees want in career advancement. According to research conducted by Alexandra Levit and Dr. Sanja Licina on behalf of DeVry University's Career Advisory Board, there is a significant disconnect between how Millennials define "career success" and what their bosses believe Millennials will say is important in career advancement.

For example, when surveyed, 48 percent of hiring managers cited "high pay" as the #1 most important factor that they believed Millennials use to define "career success," while only 11 percent of surveyed Millennial placed it as the most important factor. What got the top vote as "most important" factor from the Millennials? "Meaningful work" was listed more often than six other factors, including high pay.

Clearly, the generations are looking at career success through very different generational lenses. The implication in this: if executives continue to operate with a mindset that says, "This is how we advanced our careers, so this will work out for the next generation" they will not attract top talent to their leadership development efforts.

Learn about companies who are using innovative leadership development techniques for Millennials

The Center for Work and Family has studied what leading companies do to develop their workers' leadership skills. When it comes to presenting opportunities to the Millennial generation, successful leadership development practices include:

  • Use of social networks to connect colleagues in peer-to-peer learning
  • Access to company leaders to give input to solving pressing company problems
  • Assigning projects to Millennials that engages their passion for meaningful work
  • Opportunities for networking

These development practices tap into Millennials' desire to collaborate, use technology and network for the greater good.

The pipeline is waiting to be filled. At its most noble, leadership can be exactly the call to service that many of the Millennial generation aspire to. By shifting the focus from status and other "perks" that aren't as appealing to the younger professional, current leaders can recast "leadership" from a power-oriented, all-consuming state of being to a more holistic approach that aligns with the hallmarks that Millennials desire: sociability and service to causes. We have a dynamic subset of young leaders wanting to take the helm but we must learn to understand their motivating drivers in order to help them achieve their definition of success.