Why you should invest in leadership development for young employees

Over the past 25 years, we've watched the concept of leadership undergo a fundamental shift. It has become something less static, less dependent on title and rank. It's more fluid than ever before. It's no longer a role we bestow upon a "chosen few." In the last few decades, leadership has evolved into something more collaborative, more vital. In a very real sense, it has finally come alive. And the beneficiaries of this are going to be millennials (born 1980-1995) and Gen-Z (born after 1995), the rising generations in workplace decision-making.

The problem is that millennials and Gen-Z aren’t being given the resources they need to learn how to lead, and they know it. In 2018, Harvard Business Publishing found that only 40% of managers 36 and younger say they have access to “excellent” leadership development programs at work. So there’s clearly room for improvement. But executives often wonder whether there’s any ROI here. Won’t these young employees just leave after a few years?

There are four main reasons why this isn’t just a nice-to-have -- rather, it’s absolutely crucial. More than any other generation, this crop of incoming workers is eager to contribute, to take on more responsibility, and to tackle formidable challenges right off the bat. Rather than insist they spend years earning their place at the table, we're betting these young ambitious workers can make significant strides for our organizations right now...if we'd only let them.

Young people are entering the workforce vastly underprepared.

When polling firm Gallup surveyed chief academic officers at colleges and universities in 2014, nearly all of them -- 96% -- said that they are effectively preparing students to enter the workforce. Unfortunately, not a whole lot of people agree with them, and it’s gotten worse as dramatic changes in the nature of work and the corporate world have unfolded. A 2019 study from OECM Forum found that 71% of young people want more help preparing to find a job while they’re in school.

The Society of Human Resource Management has found that only half of Gen-Z credits high school and college with giving them the skills they need for the workforce. They’re more likely to consider on-the-job experience relevant in developing skills. But their employers have to offer them those opportunities to learn so that they can ultimately lead.

Demographic shifts are creating a leadership vacuum.

The numbers are in: we really will need young people to step into leadership roles faster than ever before. Demographic shifts are bringing on a leadership shortage that may be hard to recover from if we don't make crucial investments in leadership development today.

To understand what's at stake, let's examine the numbers. Currently, there are about 75 million Baby Boomers (those born between 1945 and 1965) in the United States. The millennial population is roughly equal in size. The problem is that the generation sandwiched between them, Generation X, is considerably smaller.

What does this mean for the future of leadership? Boomers are notoriously reluctant to retire, which has likely led to frustration about upward mobility in younger generations, but however delayed it may be, their retirement is ultimately inevitable. And as boomers exit the workforce, they'll leave behind more leadership vacancies than Generation X could ever fill, meaning that companies will have to pluck leaders from the millennial generation or even Gen-Z far earlier than they may have preferred or planned. And those millennials had better be prepared.

The demands and definitions of leadership are changing fast.

Leadership is changing as fast as the world around it -- accelerated by technology and given an extra burst of overdrive by the COVID-19 pandemic. Technology has finally outpaced tenure. Previously, ambitious young workers had to put in the time, shake the right hands, and finally earn a leadership post that made it possible to make a big impact. But millennials and Gen-Z have never known a world where anyone with a good idea, an internet connection, and a little follow-through can create a viable business -- and a huge impact -- right out of a garage or dorm room.

The working world was already changing pre-COVID, with Silicon Valley companies popularizing flatter organizations with fewer levels of management, open office plans replacing clusters of cubicles, and new means of tracking company and employee progress taking root in even the most traditional of corporations. COVID’s effects have only accelerated many ongoing transformations to the future of work -- many millennials and Gen-Z’ers had been clamoring for greater flexibility to work remotely, but now are finding they’re experiencing burnout due to how remote work is structured under COVID restrictions. Giving them a chance to lead will give them a chance to shape these trends in management and corporate life.

Young people are asking to learn to lead -- and it’s time to listen.

Some executives may be skeptical about leadership development programs for young employees because they assume those young employees won’t stick around long anyway. After all, there’s long been a stereotype of millennials as “job-hoppers” who are constantly looking for their next gig. According to a 2018 study from Deloitte, that trend isn’t showing signs of changing with Gen-Z. The survey found that 43% of millennials plan to leave their jobs within two years, a figure that hasn’t changed much over the past few years. For Gen-Z, it’s 61%.

But as it turns out, this isn’t about disloyalty or flakiness. The problem is that young employees feel they aren’t being given the opportunities to lead and grow. The same Deloitte study found that only a quarter (or fewer) of millennials say their employers help them develop any number of skills like talent development and mentoring, critical thinking, entrepreneurial spirit, and time management. And the following year, Deloitte released a report that said that poor opportunities for advancement and a lack of development and learning opportunities were two of the three top reasons why millennials and Gen-Z leave their jobs -- only salary dissatisfaction ranks higher.

Smart organizations realize that this is a generation that's looking to learn and to lead, fast. And if they're not getting the leadership development opportunities they need, they'll seek them out. All too often, that means leaving your organization.

Tammy Erickson, an expert on intergenerational dynamics, explains in a recent issue of T+D: "Learning in the broad sense is the number one thing that millennials look for in a place of employment. They want to learn how to play more influential roles in organizations, which means leadership in some form. It's not a luxury, but a necessity to have vibrant programs for millennial employees."

This pair of generations believes it really can change the world. Millennials and Gen-Z have a strong desire to make a meaningful impact and to serve, and they take a more holistic approach to success: one that takes into account people, planet, and profits. When we invest in this optimistic, socially-conscious subset of workers, we not only invest in the future of our organizations but the future of our world.