“What makes a good leader?” It’s a question my ethics professor back in grad school asked during a lecture. Eager students threw their hands in the air to answer the question, sure that they knew the right answer. Charisma. Intelligence. Strength. Wisdom.
The right answer is much simpler. To be a leader, you must have followers. It’s as simple as that. But the reasons people follow leaders vary depending on the unique situation in which they’re looking to be led.
Right now, there’s a changing of the guard happening across the country where leaders – mostly of the Boomer generation – are retiring and younger Millennials are stepping in. According to a Pew Research Center study, Millennials surpassed Gen Xers and Boomers as the largest generation in the U.S. labor force back in 2015. Vaguely defined as people reaching young adulthood in the early 21st century and, more specifically, as being born between the years 1980 to 2000, many Millennials have already found themselves in management and executive positions.
For warehouses and those within the supply chain, what does it mean that Millennials are now leaders? It means that, from a leadership and operations perspective, warehouses are evolving.
Follow the leader
Traditionally in business, leaders are followed by others because they are trusted to improve or protect the others’ and organizations’ well-being. Business leaders aren’t necessarily able to do everything better than anybody else. They’re seasoned, but not necessarily the most experienced. Still, they have followers because their competency is trusted to protect the well-being of all.
However, Millennials choose to follow for a different reason. Millennials are digital natives, founders of modern day social media. Whether on Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat, they connect with and “follow” people and brands to which they can relate. In a business setting, this means that Millennial leaders feel the need to be relatable to employees rather than providing the direction, truth, predictability and grit that followers need.
Imagine that you’re giving poor performance and your manager tells you “great job” anyway. Or worse yet, you’re crushing it while your co-worker is having one of those bad days and your manager gives both of you equal praise. Either way, the manager has undermined the trust of his or her followers.
This tendency is a real challenge for Millennial leaders and can affect their ability to lead their team.
Followers might not relate – and that’s ok
Millennials are known as the generation of acceptance and celebrating differences. Generally, they recognize that everybody is different, but everyone is equally awesome. This is great in a social setting, but it causes Millennial leaders to hold back the tougher messages for fear of seeming insensitive.
One of my favorite sayings is, “It’s nothing personal, just business.” But the Millennial mindset is that everyone has to fit in and everyone has to be perceived as being treated the same. However, in business you can’t celebrate poor performance or people falling behind the curve. You can celebrate them as a person, but not their performance. More than previous generations, Millennials have trouble distinguishing between how to approach professional and personal relationships.
I believe that everyone has a talent, but that people often land in jobs or positions that exploit their weaknesses rather than leverage their talents. What this means for companies within the supply chain is that instead of there being a frank conversation and an underperforming staff member is moved to a different position, Millennial managers might look to change the business operation to accommodate the shortcoming of the underperforming employee. This sort of interpersonal coddling hinders organizational growth by not providing the feedback a staff member needs for them to improve.
Work arounds that don’t address why a person isn’t delivering needed results isn’t helping that person up, it’s the exact opposite. Helping someone to the next level isn’t about lowering the bar to make it easier for them to succeed; it’s about providing the feedback and tools needed to create success for themselves. For Millennial leaders, this is a challenge. A boss demands. A leader coaches. But, the Millennial coddles.
Adapt, evolve, compete or die
What Millennials do extremely well is quickly adapt to change. A great example is the evolution of social media networks. After the launch and initial adoption of Friendster, soon after came MySpace and Facebook. For Millennials, they seamlessly adopted each new platform with no disruption. In fact, they became better at using each new platform to achieve their goals – whether that was growing their own personal network or building an audience for their company.
Past generations adopted new technologies at a much slower pace. When I was at IBM in the late 90s, we used traditional email as the primary means of communication. However, for years earlier there was a mainframe-based, less-internet communications program that used a mail client called cc:mail. It was basically early email. Fast forward back to 1998 and there were still Boomers who would say to me, “Send me a cc:mail,” even though we’d moved on to Lotus Notes email long before.
The point is, Millennial leaders can quickly adopt technology that gives them a competitive advantage. Instead of supply chain organizations collapsing because they can’t keep up with a changing marketplace, Millennial leaders will help them evolve and thrive.
Have the cake & eat it too
One of the most undeniable attributes of Millennials is that they’re both social and independent. Millennials are good at finding answers to questions autonomously, that is helpful in optimizing work productivity. Millennials are used to having all of humanity’s knowledge at their fingertips. The phrase “Google it” was undoubtedly coined by a Millennial. If a Millennial leader needs advice on a certain problem or is trying to grow a specific skillset, they’re able to independently and directly find what they need.
But the right answers aren’t always online. Fact: the “interweb” doesn’t store all the truth or all the answers.
In any business, especially those operating within the supply chain, there is a strong degree of tribal knowledge. Think about your organization. There is a certain level of unwritten information that is not commonly known by others outside the company or even within the industry. Having the social tendencies they do, Millennials can tap into this well of information too.
Taking advantage of the institutional knowledge through collaboration has an added benefit for Millennial leaders. When they work with others and show vulnerability by not always having the answers, Millennial leaders are creating a rapport with their followers. In doing so, they’re better able to solicit performance from their staff and create relationships that will come in handy when they have those tough conversations with underperforming staff.
May the best Millennial win
So, how will this evolution of supply chain organizational leadership and operation play out? I’m optimistic. With Millennials as managers, problems will be solved faster, cheaper or better and that’s a recipe for success. Just as the Boomers and GenX had to grow into and cultivate business leadership skills, so too will Millennials -- even if it means filling their Google search bar with “how do I…” questions.