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No generation has ever been more vilified and ridiculed than the poor Millennial. The outpouring of scorn began around the turn of the century when the oldest among the cohort – born between around 1981 and 1996 – were turning 19 and starting to enter the workforce.
“Millennials got so many participation trophies growing up that 40 percent of them believe they should be promoted every two years, regardless of performance,” writer Joel Stein fumed in a 2013 Time article titled ‘The Me Me Me Generation’.
He accused them of being lazy, selfish and shallow, and noted that the incidence of narcissistic personality disorder among them was three times that of their parents’ age group.
But that was before the so-called layabouts climbed their career ladders, infiltrated the C-suite and set about proving their detractors wrong.
In 2022, the average age of incoming CEOs fell from 56 to 53 – the biggest annual fall in 23 years – while the number of those under 50 leading S&P500 companies more than doubled to 30 percent. The number of women also more than doubled, although to a still derisory 13 percent.
The new generation of Millennial CEOs is shattering the tired cliche that gen Y are an entitled rabble of avocado toast munchers gradually going broke. Instead, 30- and 40-somethings leading businesses exude confidence, tolerance and a desire to make the world better.
“Two concerns I have for Millennial CEOs is their discomfort with ambiguity and the fear of disappointing their boss.”
- Chip Espinoza
Admittedly, as the first true digital natives, they do crave instant gratification and can be easily distracted, but they embrace disruption, deal effortlessly with change and hunger for knowledge and fulfillment rather than authority and wealth.
Recent high-profile examples include Parag Agarwal, a pre-Musk Twitter CEO at 37; Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel, who was worth more than US$2 billion at 26; Tumblr chief David Karp, just 22 when he took over; and Sundar Pichai, Google’s global boss at 42.
Until their arrival, the chief executive was nearly always a middle-aged, white man, but not anymore. Instead of 25 years climbing the career ladder, young founders are propelled into leadership near the start of their working lives, with boards increasingly valuing attitude and energy over experience and lengthy CVs.
Venture capitalists also favor young wannabe entrepreneurs, even though studies have found that older startup CEOs are actually more likely to succeed.
Millennial business leaders are just as keen on generating profits as previous generations but have gained some key insights that passed their predecessors by, according to business author and generational diversity expert Henry Rose Lee.
“Their three main priorities are benevolent capitalism, empathic engagement and responsive adaptability,” Lee tells The CEO Magazine. “They still want to make money, but in a way that takes psychological safety and emotional needs into account.
“They’ve realized that happy, fulfilled and connected staff are far more productive, and that there are real business benefits of diversity, inclusion and transparency.”
“They don’t see themselves as all-seeing, all-knowing, always correct demigods. They’re far more likely to admit to feeling vulnerable or that missteps have been made.”
- Henry Rose Lee
Part of being transparent is being more humble and honest than might be comfortable.
“They don’t see themselves as all-seeing, all-knowing, always correct demigods,” she adds. “They’re far more likely to admit to feeling vulnerable or that missteps have been made.
“But such transparency isn’t easy. What should you share and what should be kept under wraps? My view is they should share anything and everything apart from their sex life and the secrets of their products.”
So how are our new, fresh-faced masters disrupting the corporate landscape? There’s no shortage of books, academic papers and surveys on the subject, with some wildly differing views. But five major trends are consistently mentioned as ways Millennial CEOs are changing business forever.
More than nine in 10 Millennials want to use their skills for good, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management.
The focus for successful leaders has shifted from the pursuit of pure profit to having a higher purpose and a responsibility toward the planet and their staff – hence the rise of chief happiness officers, chief sustainability officers and chief customer experience officers.
Millennial bosses aren’t big on bossing their subordinates around. In recent studies, it was found that they rank managing others way down their list of priorities, instead favoring flat hierarchies where everyone is learning together.
They aren’t as insecure as previous generations and aren’t as worried about being usurped. They also value feedback and wellbeing in themselves and others.
Accelerating digitalization means decisions have to be made quickly, with less time for dithering or consultation. Embracing risk and being ready to manage a crisis caused by a wrong call are critical skills.
So is being open-minded to disparate viewpoints and accepting that not making a decision is often riskier than making a bad one. Flatter management also means more delegating of responsibilities and fewer checks in place to spot dangers.
Millennial business owners are significantly more likely to take risks than gen X, according to a Wells Fargo study, and less pessimistic about their future prospects.
Resting on their laurels isn’t appealing to younger chief executives who have grown up with rapidly changing workplaces. This makes them restless to better themselves, upskill and concede weaknesses. More than a quarter say learning is what makes them happiest at work, a LinkedIn study found.
“They’re more likely to move sideways than to look for a career ladder,” consultant and author Amy Lynch argues. “They value experience more than money.”
The annual global cost of disengaged employees is around US$1.2 trillion, a recent Gallup study revealed. And one of the biggest causes is an overconfident leader who sees strength and decisiveness as essential attributes.
It’s a personality trait that can be painfully difficult to overcome, says Nobel prize-winning author and psychologist Daniel Kahneman.
“It’s built so deeply into the structure of the mind that you couldn’t change it without changing many other things,” he told The Guardian.
For Chip Espinoza, author of Millennials Who Manage and a globally recognized thought leader on generational workplace diversity, younger CEOs are popular and dynamic but face some unforeseen dangers.
His research revealed that older workers found Millennial leaders to be more understanding and caring, appreciated for the energy and fun they bring as well as for having perspectives not tethered to tired strategies and processes.
But they might also have some difficulties when they reach the C-suite.
“Two concerns I have for Millennial CEOs is their discomfort with ambiguity and the fear of disappointing their boss,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “Higher education has fostered a need for details and checklists about how they’ll ascend an organization, but accepting ambiguity is a core competency, especially when it comes to change initiatives.
“And disappointing your boss is inevitable, so they risk developing an internal struggle between their intuition and second-guessing ‘what would my boss do?’”
“Millennials with Millennial bosses report they’re harder to work for than other generations. Part of that comes from young leaders not feeling they fit in with their peers or older generations of leaders.”
- Chip Espinoza
Another challenge is potential alienation from their own age group.
“Ironically, Millennials with Millennial bosses report they’re harder to work for than other generations,” he says. “Part of that comes from young leaders not feeling they fit in with their peers or older generations of leaders.”
Or, for that matter, those lowly gen Zs in their 20s, already being tarred with the same lazy, work-shy brush that stereotyped Millennials all those years ago. Despite that, they’re beginning to infiltrate boardrooms worldwide.
Among them is 20-year-old Advait Thakur, CEO of smart home startup Apex Infosys India, who built his first website at the age of nine and is already worth a reputed US$3.7 million.
Maybe he should make a diary note for 2033 to start complaining about the feckless Generation Alphas showing up late for work at his trillion-dollar global empire with their narcissism, promotion requests and avocados.