How To Nurture Millennial Tech Leaders - InformationWeek
IT Leadership // Team Building & Staffing
01:06 PM

How To Nurture Millennial Tech Leaders

Start with understanding what's different about this generation, and what won't ever change.

Millennials now outnumber Baby Boomers in the workforce, according to a study released by Virtuali, a leadership training firm. Amazingly, half of these individuals are now in leadership positions. And frighteningly, fully 64% of these individuals are unprepared when entering leadership roles, the survey of 527 US-based Millennial professionals finds.

8 Reasons IT Pros Need To Reject A Promotion
8 Reasons IT Pros Need To Reject A Promotion
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

A leadership position means having individuals who report to you. This is an enormous responsibility, and one that, even in the best of times, first-time managers come woefully equipped to address, given the limited knowledge, experience, and skills they bring into the job.

Social science indicates that most of us exhibit some mild level of savantism. That is to say, when we have a clear strength in one area, it is less likely that we'll have equivalent strengths in other disciplines and skills. Technology translation: An individual with high-performing technical skills is less likely to have strong skills in others areas, including leadership. We see this when highly skilled individual performers fail when asked to lead other skilled team members.

Simply put, the skills required to execute a task aren't the same as the skills needed to lead people in that role.

[ Thinking about tech talent development? Read our analysis of coding school pros and cons. ]

IT managers are often even less prepared than those in other disciplines, since advancement and recognition are typically driven by technical competencies, not by personality or natural leadership capability. While technical proficiency should be a prerequisite to manage a team of technical professionals, tech fluency isn't remotely related to the skills that predict success as a manager and a leader.

For the Millennial generation, understanding these distinctions will be even more important. Here's why.

This generation arrives in the workforce far more tech-savvy than previous generations, having grown up immersed in technology. While Baby Boomers and Generation X members have had to learn and adapt technology to their roles in the workplace, Millennials come well-equipped to interact with technology. The technical competence gap is diminished, and deep technical experience is less necessary for mere proficiency.

Instead, Millennial technologists view managers more as coaches and mentors. The job of a tech leader is not to compensate for the technical deficiencies of certain members of the team, but rather to develop a high performing team that does not need that technical crutch from the top leader.

(Image source: KurtSebastian via Pixabay.)

(Image source: KurtSebastian via Pixabay.)

Millennials also arrive at the workplace more as collaborators than cowboys. This generation didn't grow up in a world where kids left the house on their bikes every summer morning and returned in the evening just in time for dinner. They've been driven to soccer practices, music lessons, and T-ball games. They played organized team sports, not pickup games. They were supervised, organized, and instructed in teamwork and collaboration. They bring the expectation of joint effort with them to the work environment. Their early (and constantly supervised) exposure to team sports has made them the best team players and collaborators in generations.

The importance of picking an IT leader for their management skills, rather than technical skills, is very similar to the old adage that the best performing sales pro usually gets promoted to sales manager -- regardless of whether or not he or she can manage staff. A top sales professional produces as much as six to ten times what an average person does. Yet, the same competencies that make someone a wildly effective individual salesperson often work against the person in a sales management role. Only a small percentage of successful sales professionals have the behavioral DNA to be natural sales leaders.

You need to ask hard questions about your tech leadership pipeline. What percentage of technical people -- be they developers, systems architects, or software engineers -- have the makeup to be successful managers of technical teams? If coaching, collaborating, measuring, and motivating are keys to gaining high performance from the Millennial generation, what skills, competencies, and training will be vital to lead the next-generation workforce?

Today's new leaders must not only provide the initial leadership and development for this talented, tech-savvy, motivated, and invested group, but also groom them to become leaders themselves in the very near future.

What's different, what's not about Millennials

One big step is to acknowledge that Millennials are indeed different from other generations in the workforce. As a group, they value different things. The Millennial generation, to a degree greater than their predecessors:

  • Welcome coaching and mentoring
  • Enjoy and seek collaboration
  • Look for feedback and measurement of progress
  • Want recognition for performance

Not everything is different for Millennials. The following advice has been true in past generations, and will be true going forward: Highly capable technology pros often won't transform into great technology leaders. Remember the lessons learned about doing versus leading.

However, there are real distinctions and variables tied to generational differences. The specifics regarding how to best lead Millennials and nurture them as they become leaders continue to be uncovered. It is both possible, and essential, to build a fact- and data-based approach to quantifying the distinguishing capabilities. Once you are aware of those capabilities, incorporating them into the recruiting, selection, onboarding, and development of the next generation of business leaders is the key to success, especially with the Millennial workforce.

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Daniel Weinfurter consults with many organizations, developing and implementing sales and leadership effectiveness strategies that drive profitable growth. In his his 25 years as a serial entrepreneur, he has built three successful private equity-backed companies, ... View Full Bio
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User Rank: Ninja
2/25/2015 | 12:41:50 PM
Training for leadership
As with all first time managers it's extremely helpful if you have some basic training in place (informal or formal) to help those you are grooming for management to succeed. The people skills needed for management can be learned, but the 'throw them in the deep end' approach doesn't always allow everyone to swim. Given the Millennial's bent on teamwork, many may be in a better position to manage with a few added skills.

I do think young managers often have a harder time, based on the fact that if you haven't had many managers you might not have either the role model of the manager that the best to work under or the manager that was the worst, which provide examples of what to do and of what not to do. Without those you're are managing in uncharted waters.
User Rank: Ninja
2/17/2015 | 8:22:08 AM
Re: Millennials as tech managers
@jagibbons, I don't disagree with you, there are a lot of things you need to consider when grooming someone to move into a management position no matter what generation they are from.  I just find that the millennials have a much more deeply embedded "team" mentality so getting them out in front often means elevating them unofficially before an official position change.  Other generations you could elevate someone to that position and you could see the shift in their approach right away, sometimes good, sometimes bad but they knew that there had to be a change to be a leader.  
User Rank: Ninja
2/16/2015 | 9:57:27 AM
Re: Millennials as tech managers
I can agree with your idea, SaneIT, at least up to a certain point. It is very possible and can be very successful to help a Millennial learn to lead from within. However, as one moves from the "within" to a more officially leadership position, there needs to be intentionality in the growth opportunities presented to Millennials, or any professionals for that matter. Some leadership grooming needs to be less subtle in order for the individual who is learning to understand the connections between the development opportunity and the outcomes.
User Rank: Ninja
2/14/2015 | 9:21:26 PM
Re: How To Nurture Millenial Tech Leaders
As a millenial myself, it's interesting to get this perspective on us from the outside looking in. Particularly, we often hear a lot of negative sentiment about our generation, and even those that give compliments are likely to splice it with a backhanded insult that takes away from it. It's much more valuable to actually have a holistic perspective from someone who has actually been around the block professionally, like yourself, Daniel, or like many of the other accomplished IW editors and community members. It's best in management to focus on taking someone's negatives as potential strengths, and to focus on fixing the future rather than the past, and that's true even if you're generalizing about a whole generation of people. I much appreciate the way you've done that here.

You make a very strong point about this generation's innate technical savviness blurring the line between technology specialists and generalists, and I think there's a lot of depth to that point. Being a technical specialists no longer means that you know your way around a server room. You could be a programmer with 5 or 10 languages under his belt. You could be virtualization expert that knows the ins and outs of rapidly changing techonologies and all the vendors in the industry. That's all on top of four years of general computer science education. Being a tech leader now means corralling all those things, all those diverse tech pros, together and steering them towards a concise business goal. It's more complex than ever, but you might be right that many of the skills required are still the same. I think my generation is up to the task, but then, maybe I'm a little biased.
User Rank: Ninja
2/12/2015 | 8:14:22 AM
Millennials as tech managers
"Millennials also arrive at the workplace more as collaborators than cowboys. " 

This is a very valid point but if you leverage it the right way it removes a lot of the work when grooming someone to become a tech manager.  There are very strong leaders in this generation but many of them are trained to lead from inside of a team not from the top of a team.  By slowly bringing attention to their strengths and building them up to the position they will rise on their own many times but if you drop them into the position and tell them to lead they defer to the group.  When done correctly they won't even know that you are grooming them for the position they will just feel like they are naturally rising to the top of the pack and the team will fall in behind them.

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