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Updated: Apr 24

How Millennials’ and GenZ’s thirst for experiences and coaching can fuel a healthy pipeline of leadership talent.

A few weeks ago, during a conversation with the president of one of the U.S.’s largest utility contracting firms, he described the demographic gap in their leadership pool: with a relatively smaller number of Generation X leaders, lots of Baby Boomers nearing retirement, a sizable Millennial population that’s still rising and a largely untested GenZ population, he sees the makings of a perfect storm of leader shortfall in his business.

This sentiment isn’t isolated to one industry or geography. From aerospace to insurance to transportation, global business leaders are grappling with how to respond to the seismic shift happening in the age demographics of the workforce. The Millennial group has already surpassed Baby Boomers as the largest demographic in the workforce, with GenZs closing in fast. And by 2024 the Baby-Boom cohort will be ages 60 to 78, with a large percentage already exited from the labor force. These factors, magnified by a business environment of increasing pressure to do more, faster, to deliver value, have business leaders recognizing that, as one put it, ‘the only way to address these issues is to identify and develop new leaders.’

With Baby Boomers leaving the workforce and Millennial and GenZ populations moving in fast, younger people are stepping into leadership roles sooner than ever before, often without having the benefit of ‘time’ to develop the critical skills needed to lead. In a study of Millennial leaders published in Forbes, two-thirds of younger leaders surveyed reported feeling unprepared when entering their leadership role. Even after spending time as leaders, they described that lack of experience made it challenging to manage difficult people and resolve conflict.

A New Paradigm: Pull vs Push Development

There is clearly a pressing need to fast-track the development and readiness of Millennial and GenZ talent. The good news is, that by their very nature, these up-and-coming talent segments are not only receptive to development but considers it a central driver of work and overall life satisfaction. Studies by PwC and Deloitte reveal that Millennials are "desperate for learning" and rank training and development as their #1 desired job benefit, above flexible schedules and pay.

And it’s not just any training they are seeking. Millennials and GenZs report that too often training programs place outsized emphasis on e-learning or other ‘teach out’ methods and not enough on experience-based activities, such as rotational or other special assignments which they consider most impactful and which they most desire.

The opportunity to develop through experiences is of special significance to these groups. Studies show that Millennials and GenZs deeply desire experiences in general and can sometimes feel left out if they think they’re missing out on the opportunity to experience something. This phenomenon is often referred to as FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Like many constructs, there is a spectrum of behaviors and degrees of intensity associated with how FOMO manifests. But relative to developing organizational talent, the implication is clear: Millennials and GenZs crave experiences and the fact that they appear to be especially sensitive to the perception of not having those opportunities, or missing out, makes them highly motivated targets for experience-based development programs.

How HR talent professionals can capitalize on this unique opportunity

Fortunately, talent development professionals already have a proven method at their disposal to channel this experience-centric energy in the Millennial and GenZ demographics. Research first published by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and supported in multiple studies, is well-documented: we learn our best lessons from experiences, and our most valuable growth happens through real-life, stretch assignments, where success or failure matters, which triggers the motivation to learn.

The research by CCL and others also emphasizes the value of learning from others: coaches, mentors, and bosses in particular. Here again, Millennials and GenZs as demographic groups welcome, if not outright demand, coaching and mentoring as part of their professional lives. In a recent HBR study, Millennials shared what they appreciate and found valuable as part of the culture of the organization. They want — and respond to — a good, positive coach, who can make all the difference in their success. In fact, they want feedback 50% more of the time than other employees. However, less than half think they get enough feedback from their managers.

With these experience and feedback-hungry employee populations taking on more responsibilities in the workplace, HR talent professionals have the opportunity to deploy development programs keenly in sync with their incoming/advancing talent pool:

  • Design and implement development programs that prioritize stretch assignments (full-time or as part of current role), action learning opportunities, and other methods that marry development with doing.

  • Infuse those programs with robust formal coaching and feedback mechanisms, all integrated to support a common development goal.

  • Expand the lens you use to identify and develop high potentials beyond the mid-senior manager ranks to capture the #developmentFOMO of the Millennials and GenZs in the organization.

As the Boomers move out and Millennials and GenZs move in and up in your organization, accelerating development of emerging talent has never been more important. By scaling the proven benefits of experiential stretch assignments integrated with coaching deeper into the organization, you will harness the zeitgeist of your rising talent population and make a lasting impact on this next generation of leaders.

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