How to Boost Newer Employees Into Leadership

Gen X-ers and millennials often get held back for fear of disruption, a new survey suggests. But what's wrong with some disruption?

The association of professionals who help people find leadership talent is concerned that organizations are searching too narrowly.

That’s one of the main conclusions of “The Next Wave,” a study published last week by the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants. Surveying 850 executives around the world in a variety of industries, AESC discovered a familiar—and familiarly troubling—trendline. “Executives across all industries recognize the imperative of succession planning,” according the report, “but many organizations have still not actually developed a succession plan.”

That’s a problem, the report argues, because a lot of the tools that gen Xers and millennials bring to the table—entrepreneurial attitudes, emphases on diversity and social responsibility, comfort with a ever-disrupting digital culture—are the ones that organizations will need in the future. “Businesses in developed countries around the world are facing an enormous challenge regarding aging demographics,” says AESC president and CEO Karen Greenbaum, pointing to AESC’s own research that found “aging demographics” to be a top concern for executive talent by 2020. “The top areas of concern now includes lack of diversity and the need for digital talent, [and] we see both of these as next-generation issues and opportunities.”

The study bears out what many earlier studies have reported about the importance of investing in developing leadership skills in younger employees. A 2016 report from the Workforce Institute, for instance, emphasized the importance of investing more in middle management to help them develop skills in other employees.

If you stand still, everyone else will run by you.

Important, because the problem in many organizations is that it’s easier to get somebody up to the first rung of the ladder than it is to help pull them up to rungs two, three, and four. As with most areas of diversity and inclusion, organizations often do a decent job of welcoming people from younger generations, but (as I wrote last week) struggle when it comes to mentoring, empowering, and promoting them. On that front, it’s interesting to see what the survey respondents said they valued when they considered the needs of younger generations. “Empowering top talent” and “succession planning” were important across all industries. But “focused development” of leaders wasn’t, nor was “cross-functional development” or mentoring. Which is to say that the lip service for supporting Xers and millennials is there, but enthusiasm for the actual activities that improve their skill sets isn’t.

That’s disappointing (if also familiar), and Greenbaum points out that there are plenty of relatively straightforward fixes. “Provide them with global opportunities, whether it’s short term assignments, special projects, or assignments in other countries,” she says. (“Globalization” came second after “aging demographics” in AESC’s survey of top concerns in 2020.) “Leverage their digital expertise and consider using them for upward mentoring of leaders of the baby boomer generation. Be a sponsor and promoter not just an ‘educator.’ Create an environment where diverse views are heard.”

Available resources and time are a common stumbling block to initiatives like the ones Greenbaum mentions—who has time for a formal stretch-goal program when there’s a meeting to plan with 150 moving parts? That’s where a dedicated strategy comes in, according to “The Next Wave.” “Track internally as well as who in the market could be key next-generation talent for leadership positions in your organization, based both on current roles and the roles needed in the future,” says the report. “Access to penetrating intel with organizational charts for competitors across industry, as well as relevant leaders from other sectors, will provide a pipeline that can be assessed and updated on an ongoing basis.”

The benefits of shifting organizational emphasis, Greenbaum says, should outweigh any concerns about the disruption those changes will create. “We would argue that it is riskier to keep yesterday’s strategy at a time of digital transformation,” she says. “If you stand still, everyone else will run by you. Attracting, retaining, and developing the younger generation of talent is more than just a ‘training budget.’  It’s about creating an authentic employment brand that resonates as well with your employees as with your customers—or in the case of an association, with your members.”

What does your association do to put a succession and mentoring programs into practice with younger or newer employees? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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