Why We Must Rethink How We Lead the Millennials by Karl Moore


forbes.com / view original

The class always went silent whenever I taught the classic IBM structured sales call. Students enjoyed learning about the professional side of sales, a revelation for many. However, one day during an executive course, a sales manager in his 30s put up his hand and said, “Professor Moore, we don’t do it like that anymore”. When students call me by my title it is usually because they wish to disagree, so I knew I was in trouble. This came as a bit of a shock; here was an approach that I assumed would last for decades and yet he was saying it was already past its sell by date.

Nevertheless, I could not deny that there was some truth to his statement as it was later confirmed on a consulting call with a SVP of strategy at a leading high tech firm. At this firm I had adopted the CEO sales approach used very effectively by IBM and McKinsey, developing a relationship with the CEO who then sends you to see other C-Suite executives about possible engagements. When I started to ask questions to probe their needs and pain points, as I had done for years, the SVP said, “just tell us what you have on offer and we will decide if we need some of it”. He remained very polite, as the company’s CEO had referred me to him, but this reinforced the fact that my old approach, as powerful as it had been, was passé.

This is the same for much of the truths about leadership I had been taught as a new IBM manager. What confirmed this was when I had the chance to learn from one of the top Generals in the world: Four star General Martin Dempsey, recently appointed by President Obama to be the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. I had the privilege of teaching with General Dempsey on the Advanced Management Program at Duke University. During this time, one of the most interesting things he said about leadership was that “Generals fight the wars of their youth”.

To fully understand what this statement means we need to go back to when the General was a Second Lieutenant just out of West Point. As a young military officer, he learned compelling and profoundly memorable lessons about the strategy and tactics of the day. These lessons about the nature of how to wage a war and how to lead soldiers are ones that are particularly salutary to a new and young officer; they stay with you for life and imprint into your leadership DNA. Similarly, the Generals that commanded during the Cold War learned their lessons in Vietnam as young Lieutenants or Captains. The lessons learned from Vietnam were completely different: it was a different war, different strategies and different tactics.
General Dempsey’s first command as a General was with the 1st Armored Division, including 13 months in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. However, the strategies of the Cold War were largely no longer relevant for the type of war being fought in Iraq: it was different enemies, a different physical environment, dramatically better technology and different era troops. Undoubtedly, there are certain eternal lessons about war, which could be seen as having a straight line from Korea, to Vietnam, to the Cold War and into Desert Storm. These fundamental lessons include things like the profound loyalty troops have for the other men and women in their unit.

As to lessons to forget, my colleague Morgen Witzel suggested that a classic military example is the Maginot Line. The French assumed that the next war would be fought in the same way as the last one but the German Wehrmacht had changed the rules. Taking advantage of considerably improved aircraft and tank technologies, the Germans used the tactic of Blitzkrieg (lightning war) to nullify the Maginot Line’s value in only three days.

So what does a General unlearn? That is the question, and a tough one at that. One thing that came up in my conversations with the General was how hierarchy is much less relevant in today’s army than it was back in the Cold War. This appears to be also true for managers. Over the last month and a half, I have taught two-day seminars on Being a Change Leader for a Large Multinational. I start this course with the quote from General Dempsey. The question for these senior managers is what do they put aside from their early days as leaders/managers and what do they retain? As we rethink leadership, we are seeing a broad move away from what Henry Mintzberg calls Heroic Leadership to a more Engaging Style of leadership. There is still room, on occasion, for a more hierarchal style of leading, but only in truly urgent circumstances, hopefully an unusual, if not, rare occurrence.

A European CEO pointed out a key way that he saw management changing; “I think that we see a reduction of management positions all over the place. Meaning, even successful enterprises with solid business growth tend to decrease management functions and expand the span of the remaining leaders. With that I believe the role of leaders is changing to a less hierarchical style in a way that their job is mostly about orchestrating a management team rather than retaining leadership to him as an individual. You might think of it as a transition from a head coach that works from outside the court to a captain which is spearheading the team on the field.” Although I believe his statement rings true, I believe it still depends on your industry, national culture, firm and your own style. From recent teaching in Russia at the gleaming new Skolkovo School and with Chinese executives I believe that they are more hierarchical than U.S./Canadian firms and those in Western Europe. Love to hear your comments on this.

Let me share two examples of ideas that I must put aside from my days at IBM in the 1980s. Back then, if anyone got emotional at a meeting, we would stop and take a coffee break. The prevailing view that was taught was that if emotions raised their head, we needed to make sure we escorted them quickly out of the room. “Just the facts, ma’am” was our motto. Today, the role of emotions at work is the single most popular topic for doctoral research at the Academy of Management, the biggest annual business researcher conference. Nevertheless, a balance is needed; that balance is quite different these days than twenty years ago.

Also, back in those days, the rule of thumb was a manager could manage at most 7-8 direct reports. Today this number is much higher. Of course, the role of the manager often changes from that of a coach who is involved with you day-to-day to one of someone who does your annual review and who you call on when there is trouble. This is not all good, people tell me they feel at times like their manager is on the ocean liner shouting down at them through a megaphone, “Hope it goes well, good luck”, as opposed to being in the rowboat with them, rowing in tandem with them. Personally, like it when my manager is in the boat too!

If this is true, then more senior leaders – both in title and in years, have to set aside much of their old style of leading and adopt more appropriate approaches for today and today’s generation of younger workers. Just as Generals “Fight the battles of their youth”, so do executives. A CEO friend of mine who runs a global professional services firm said, “When we first start working with new CEO’s I always want to know the 1-3 ideas or initiatives that got them promoted. You can argue that leaders shouldn’t always replay their winning battle plans, but there is no question that they do.”

So the Millennials, what I am calling Postmoderns in my forthcoming book, Leading, Managing Working With Under 35s the Way They Want To be Worked With, have a different worldview than us over 45, we must rethink our leadership approach if we wish to lead them successfully. As we have been alive their whole lives we are in a better position to understand them than asking them to understand us. Please keep reading as this blog focuses on Rethinking Leadership for today’s world.

I would like to give a shout-out (my undergrads students encourage me to use this rather than thanks) to Dick Evans, ex-CEO of Alcan, Karsten Schmidt of Lufthansa and Melanie Walsh for their suggestions on this columnI.

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