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MILLENNIALS: What Employers are Looking for in the Next Generation of Leaders

It wasn’t too long ago that some of us reading this article were sitting in the interview chair, thinking about the right things say and what characteristics to highlight so that we would be offered a job.  And yet, knowing what I do now, I wish I could go back to that young professional with the same knowledge and understanding of the business world I have today and help him refocus his energy.

While some researchers say that the millennial generation will make up half of the work force within the next 10 years, what will be more critical will be the gap that retiring Baby Boomers leave in the leadership ranks.  With more spaces than the Gen-Xers can fill, it will inevitably fall on the Gen-Ys to fill in where appropriate.

Knowing this, it would behoove those Millennials currently employed to begin positioning themselves as emerging leaders within their respective organizations. Likewise, there are still a significant number of non-millennial employees still seeking leadership roles that would benefit from this as well. But how do we do that, and how are today’s executives changing their selection process when considering future leaders?

The other day I was speaking with a senior leader at an organization and he used the term “high potential/high performer.”  This term caught my attention as it was used to identify individuals within the organization that had not only demonstrated the potential to lead, but also those that had regularly delivered results. Specifically, it was the combination of these two capabilities that this particular organization was looking for in order to promote from within. It was at this point that I realized that the battle for leadership positions within prominent organizations was extremely competitive and driven by performance and a commitment to learn.

This approach to leadership, I dare to say, is relatively new when compared to the workplace of 15 years ago, and because of that, requires skills that current and emerging leaders must possess. As I step back and view the ‘old school’ and ‘new school’ approaches, I am struck by the differences that were apparent between the more seasoned employee and someone who was relatively new.

Style Differences

Below you will find three areas that have presented themselves recently as critical focal points for employees of all generations to consider when positioning themselves as an intricate part of an organization in the future.  In addition, I’ve included my own personal observations of how each school of thought has a different mindset around these areas.   Take a look at these three areas and determine if your style falls more into the old or new school ways of thinking. 

The interesting piece though, is that the skills don’t always need to exist, but the interest in striving for that skill must be apparent for managers and leaders to take notice.  Even more so now, what I see differentiating the workforce is not their age, but their willingness to accept that changes are necessary and their ability to adapt in order to optimize the change that has occurred.  In a simplified version, its how to turn lemons into lemonade without getting caught up in the fact that we’re using a new blender.

Key Characteristics
In addition to the need for individuals to flex from their old style to a style that meets the current needs of the organization and its employees, recent conversations with executives have yielded insight into the characteristics they look for in leadership, and surprisingly, technical skills didn’t make the list. In the end it was critical thinking, effective communication, and collaboration that proved most beneficial to the organization as a whole.

To me, this was so insightful and was part of a conversation I had earlier in my career while I was at Paul Smith’s College.  From the institutional perspective, it was scary to hear that the traits most desired by employers were not ones we specifically provided as part of the curriculum, but instead, those skills developed in the white space between formal learning events.

Over the years, I have been exposed to a number of different organizations, each of which has its own set of skills that play into these three categories. Below I’ve dissected each of the above leadership skills and have tried to apply behaviors to each in order to make them more directive.

 Critical Thinking

• The ability to make timely and data-driven decisions
• The ability to identify implications of decisions and minimize any negative impact
• The ability to identify problems and develop value-added solutions
• The ability to differentiate between the symptom of a problem and the root cause
• The ability to break down a process and create ways to maximize its effectiveness

 Effective Communication

• The ability to produce well written and thought provoking content and material
• The ability review current communication processes and improve on the quality and quantity of communication that is occurring
• The ability to speak the language of the intended recipient to maximize impact
• The ability to communicate constructive feedback in a way that motivates
• The ability to communicate a clear goal and approach for accomplishing projects


• The ability to work as a team player
• Puts the team’s success before his/her own
• Is constantly seeking ways to provide value to whatever aspect he/she is involved in
• Works to capitalize on the combined skills of team members
• Actively seeks input from others to provide a better product

In the beginning of this blog I made the comment that if I knew what I do now back when I was first entering the workforce, that I may have positioned myself a little differently.  So imagine you had that ability to go back; what areas would you tell yourself to gain skill in and what’s one step you’re willing to take today to make that happen? I know that I would’ve told myself to not only focus on how well I do the task, but also, how well I manage the variables associated with the task, such as people, problems and process.





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