Age Aside: Young leaders are still leaders

I am a young professional from Nairobi. Since 2015 I have been part of a mentorship programme involving young people in Kenya. I started off as a lead junior professional, coordinating and managing a group of peers. Fast forward six months into the project, I was appointed project administrator, charged with managing and running the group’s secretariat.

One day I was following up on some information for the group via phone, the person speaking to me was very receptive and agreed that the information I needed would be available for me once I was in his office. When I arrived at the reception the man came to pick me up, and it occurred to me that he already had assumptions about how a leader of a group of people should look like, he did not expect me to be so young, and his tone and behaviour towards me was different to what it had been over the phone. This got me thinking: how many young professionals are discriminated upon based on age and appearance?

At the Flame Youth Congress. © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

 If you associate with or have been referred to as a youth then you are a millennial. It is not precisely defined yet, but largely it refers to the generation of people born between 1986 and 2000. So a millennial is anyone who is between 17 and 31 years old.  Millennials are often potrayed as lazy, entitled, tech-savvy and extremely narcissistic. The Times magazine, for example, has described millennials as a “ME ME ME generation”.

This stereotyping has now been somehow integrated into workplaces: young people often get work tasks based on what they are perceived to be with assumptions about what they can achieve. That’s how millennials end up working as tech support.

Presently, more and more organizations are trying to be as efficient as possible whilst adapting to a constantly changing globalized environment in order to maintain their organizational culture. Organizations continue to strive for financial health and growth with integrity while keeping all the stakeholders happy. Doing this successfully requires learning and innovation; integrating millennials into the organization's canvas could be the key. Why? Because by 2020, millennials will form 50% of the global workforce. Just like every generation, millennials have a unique world view, unique tools and it is they who will redefine work and life in general.

These new ways of thinking will surely clash with traditional organizational cultures, and leadership structures, but the world is changing and so should the approach to leadership. According to David Ulrich, professor of Business Administration at the University of Michigan, “When someone is asked to draw an ‘organization,’ many immediately think of a pyramid which pushes authority and power to the top, but most of today’s employees would envision their organization more as a circle where information, authority, decision making and rewards are shared”.

With the exodus of the earlier generation, organizations will be facing leadership gaps. And, the millennials are able to fill in these gaps. That’s why there is a need to develop leadership pipelines across all levels, not just to make better trained leaders in an old system and ensure succession of leadership, but to rethink the whole concept of leadership, combining the wisdom of the experienced and the innovation, ambition and courage of the young. I don’t suggest ‘boss-less’ organizations, but I do suggest to get rid of horizontal hierarchy, and swap it for a structure that everyone understands and appreciates. 

Photo by Sr. X via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

So who is a leader? Why youth? And why should youth care to involve in leadership?

A lot has been written about leadership and leaders, their roles and qualities, and of course whether they are born or made. And if they are made, how does this happen.

I will not use that literature though, you can read it yourself. For me a leader is the one who accommodates, connects with and inspires others towards a shared vision. Being a young leader still means being a leader.

Millennials have high ambition, a desire to progress quickly in what they are doing, often look for a varied and interesting career path. According to Society for Human Resource Management, given today’s advancements, millennials might achieve milestones quicker than their generational counterparts and, therefore, will be less likely to stay put for extensive periods of time without promotion. Tied to this, millennials seek workplaces with a vision and mission that matters. They are interested in how the things are managed and how the decisions are made.

Finally, and what should not be underestimated, is the speed with which young people can adapt and change their ways, moving quickly from organizations that can’t meet their expectations – millennials want to continually upgrade their skills in meaningful ways. For instance, according to a Deloitte millennial survey 2017, 71% of those who responded that they will leave their work in the next two years said they will do so because they felt “leadership skills were not being fully developed”.  

A collaborative work environment as well as a mindful and purposeful work tasks that enable creativity, promote individuality and reward efficiency is what the millennials want. And this approach will draw more outputs from the youth. Once an enabling environment is in place, things really start to happen. One example is the FabLab from the University of Nairobi, a program run by engineering students who engage school students’ creativity and interests in science and technology to develop practical solutions to problems around them. Other than that the lab has open days where students can walk in and find out about the ongoing work.

Photo from the "Subjects to Change: Styereotypes Snapshots" series by Dani Parsons, S2C Changemaker via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

How does a lazy, entitled youth get involved in leadership?

One major reason young people are overlooked as candidates for leadership roles is usually experience.  There is an assumption that a young leader can only lead young people, segregating communities in different age groups.

Youth involvement and empowerment is not about having young people at the workplace fetching ‘drinking water’, but about truly, actively and genuinely involving them in all processes at the workplace. Mentorship programmes which gradually integrate young people into leadership can be a good starting point. Contrary to a popular belief millennials say they are comfortable working with older generations and value mentors in particular. For instance, the Intelligence Group finds that, 72% of millennials would like to be their own boss, but if they do have to work for a boss, 79% of them would want that boss to serve more as a coach or mentor. Other than ensuring transitions of responsibilities, the mentors and the mentees bond by sharing experiences and thus overcome some of the negative stereotypes associated with generation gaps.

As organizations, institutions and entire societies continue to look for ways to involve youth in leadership, young people should move away from using age as an excuse for incompetency, inability to effectively communicate their ideas or engage in constructive interactions within and outside the workplace. Young people have to be ready to do more.

The “I want it the way I want it, when I want, where I want and I want it now” attitude will not work. “Patience” and “persistence” are the words that have to become part of millennial vocabulary.

In its turn, assumptions about the abilities and capabilities of young people have to change; not all millennials fit into one box. The stereotypes that young people are unwilling to pay their dues or behaving like they are entitled are often not fair. Quite the opposite, millennials are continuous learners, collaborators, achievement-oriented, socially conscious and most educated generation in history as stated by Newman and Rikleen, 2010.

Managing the millennials surely has its challenges, but it is not like we can jump over a generation. There is no other way but making it work for the youth and with the youth.

So, yes, in case you are wondering, I’m a proud millennial.  And I am committed to change.

This blogpost is written by Stephen Vundi Mungula, a budding young professional from Kenya, he has background is in agricultural economics. Stephen is serving as a project manager at SIANI Expert Group hosted by the Agricultural Sector Development Support Program, ASDPP in Kenya.