Updated: Jun 22, 2021
We will spend more than 70.000 hours of our lives at work, wouldn't it be great to make sure the majority of that time is spent feeling good and feeling like our contribution matters?
The workforce and corporate work culture is changing. As millennials become the dominant group in the workplace, as a pandemic changed the way we work, I find myself reflecting more and more on the imminent need for new and more modern ways to lead people in the corporate world. Additionally, as a millennial in a leadership position, I find myself dissatisfied with the corporate management style that preceded my generation. I don’t believe in framing jobs around deliverables alone, but that any position should be tailored by both the individual and the tasks at hand in tandem. I believe that creating an environment where people thrive requires us leaders to understand each employee’s motivation, strengths and shortcomings and that ongoing coaching is necessary to help every employee unleash their potential and blossom. This is hard work and it isn’t a one size fits all process, but one that needs to be tailor made for each individual. This process also requires the business world to increase drastically the value it attributes on soft skills and emotional intelligence, especially for people in leadership positions. Millennials and Gen Z employees are seeking a different relationship with their employer and with their manager and I believe that, at least in the corporate world, we talk way too little about this upcoming need for change in the way we lead.
For the last 4 years, I have been on a journey to learn how to be a leader in a way that feels authentic to me, that respects my personal values and that leads to creating a strong performing team where each individual can be motivated and thrive. This has not been an easy journey as I often feel we lack leadership role models where soft skills are prioritized and valued over hard skills. To be completely honest, I actually failed miserably at first and I lost employees as I struggled to understand my place as a leader and how to give my employees the guidance and leadership they sought. As a millennial leader, I felt disoriented in my new role as I didn’t identify with any leadership style I had witnessed in my career or read about.. For the most part I struggled in silence. I was embarrassed. I didn’t know how to lead and I was ashamed to admit it in fear I’d be labeled unfit for my role and that this would end my long-term ambition to be a career people manager. It took me well over two years to find my ground and learn how to lead in a way that was both authentic to me and value-adding for my employees. Hard work has paid off as I see my employees thrive today, but the work never ends and being a good leader is a lifelong journey.
As millennials and Gen Z slowly take over the workforce, I can see a critical shift in leadership style happening. As a millennial leader myself who struggled to learn how to lead and who struggled to find leadership models that matched my style, I now want to help others in similar situations. I hope that by sharing my leadership principles, learned the hard way over years of struggle, I can help new leaders reflect and learn how to lead in their own way. I also hope that by sharing my leadership principles, I can also support the experienced leaders who are suddenly challenged in their leadership style by the influx of millennials and Gen Z in the workforce. We talk way too little about the challenges new millennial leaders face when entering the leadership track and way too little about the change in leadership needed to lead the next generations in the workforce. Hopefully my principles below help start a conversation.
Here are my leadership principles as a millennial leader:
Above it all, EMPATHY. Most of my leadership principles are tied to empathy. To me, leading with empathy is the only way to lead. This means to lead while understanding the context, the experiences, the needs of others, their thoughts and feelings. Leading with empathy allows people to feel safe, it allows me to be more personable and accessible, it helps build trust, it helps me empower the team, it fuels collaboration, it allows me to better understand the root cause of issues, it can help me guide better my team members and it enables me to build stronger relationships with my team. All principles that follow are actually enabled by leading with empathy.
I am myself at work. I don’t pretend to be someone else at work. I am just me with all that it entails. I have shared my successes and my vulnerabilities with my team and colleagues. I don’t hide, I am just human like everyone else. When I first became a manager, I tried to be more serious, focus only on work and not talk about my personal life. That was not a success! I became confused about who I was and I started doubting all my decisions. Being solely focus on work and not being personal with people is simply not who I am… I am a person who likes to get personal and I do so at work and outside of work. I share family anecdotes, I talk about the struggles I faced while being on maternity leave and I discuss the latest Netflix tv shows. Most of my employees follow me on social media and see my life outside work unfolds. Actually, I am pretty sure many are reading this article ;)
Everyone matters. I spend a good deal of time with each member of my team individually. Understanding who they are, how they work, what motivates them and what they fear is critical. By knowing who they are, I can guide and coach them better. I can help them shape their role to their benefit and enable them to work in ways that help them unleash their potential. I can’t stress this enough. Everyone is different, everyone has different needs and as I manager I believe it’s my responsibility to understand where and how my employees are at their best.
Purpose is essential. Not every task and responsibilities will change the world but I believe it is critical for everyone to feel a sense of purpose at work. Whether purpose is professional growth, being a reliable team member or delivering on time, purpose can take any shape and form for individuals. I try hard to make sure that everyone in the team feels a sense of purpose in the work they do and that this is tailored to both their tasks and who they are as individuals.
People matter more than deliverables. My team’s well-being and psychological safety matters more than deliverables. I think it’s critical to put people first. When people feel safe and are in a trusting environment, they thrive and deliver. People are always first, deliveries come after!
Trust is a must. Trust is the foundation for creating a good team. Trust needs to exist not just with me, but also between members of my team and it is my responsibility to ensure that trust is carried across.
Being a manager means to be a coach, a mentor and a support system. As a people leader, my role is not to give people tasks, keep them in check and make sure they deliver. Of course, there is a bit of that, but that isn’t the most important part. Being a people leader is about coaching, mentoring and supporting my team when they face challenges, adversity and difficult projects. It’s also my responsibility to celebrate with them their successes.
Humility is key. As a manager it’s important to me to show humility. When I am wrong, I am wrong and when I don’t know, I don’t know and it’s ok. I have learned with time that my team trusts me more because I can show my vulnerabilities and my humanity.
Belonging is fundamental. Creating a sense of belonging allows the team to work better together and be a solid unit where trust and care for one another blossoms. I am a great believer in tribal leadership and seek to create a tribe with my team at work. As my favorite quote on belonging says “diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance and belonging is dancing like nobody's watching.” My ultimate goal is to make sure everyone belongs.
Feedback is a two-way street. I try to offer feedback to the members of my team as often as I can, but this is not a one-way street. I ask my team for feedback. By making feedback a two-way street, feedback becomes a fundamental part of the team’s culture, it makes everyone more open to receiving feedback as everyone knows they can also give feedback to others. Finally, making feedback a two-way street helps me grow as a people leader as my team tells me what I do well and where I need to improve.
Empowering others. Anyone in my team can take the lead. I am not the ultimate decision maker on everything and I let others take the lead, make decisions and run with projects. This is key to establish trust and enable professional growth.
I am never the smartest person in the room. I never want to be the smartest person in the room. I expect each individual in my team to be better than me in their area of ownership. My role is to offer guidance, remove roadblocks, take care of stakeholder management and support everyone to succeed.
Everyone can speak up, everyone has a say and everyone can share their ideas at any time.
Continuous learning. Life is a learning journey and work should be exactly that. Continuous learning is critical to me. This doesn’t mean that I send everyone to training and courses all the time. Learning can be so many things. Learning to lead, learning to make decisions, learning to challenge others, those are skills everyone can learn. As a people leader, it is my responsibility to encourage and support my team to continuously learn and to be challenged out of their comfort zone towards new opportunities that will help them grow.
Work is a two-way relationship. A relationship with an employer is a two-way street. When members of my team make a great effort, work endless hours, such behaviors should be recognized, rewarded and/or compensated. No one should ever feel being taken advantage of at work by their manager or employer. There is no trust nor safety when you feel you have to watch your back and no one should feel that way 8h per day while working.
I love a flat structure, it enables us to work as a unit and allows my team to make decisions in their areas of expertise.
Collaboration is an enabler. It isn’t always easy, when everyone has their own area of responsibility, to ensure a good collaboration. Therefore, I made it a non-negotiable principle to team up members of the team on projects. This allows my team to create stronger relationships, but also to leverage on other people’s skills and expertise. Additionally, working with peers who tackle tasks and projects differently sparks innovation and allows people to see things in a new light. To me collaboration is key and critical to spur growth.
Work-life balance. I personally don’t like the term work-life balance. Why are work and life presented as two parts of the equation? Isn’t life all of life including work? I am a firm believer in life balance meaning that everyone should have the right balance of work and non-work time based on individual needs. Some people, me to name an example, love to work a lot. That being said, I can’t apply this preference to everyone and ensuring everyone in the team has the right life balance is key for me.
Entrepreneurial spirit. I am lucky enough to work in an organisation where entrepreneurial spirit is valued and this is something I personally really cherish. I believe that through this mindset, new ideas can emerge, business issues can be tackled and individuals can learn new things and grow.
Personal and professional growth. Seeing my employees develop and grow is my greatest reward. There is nothing I enjoy more than seeing my team develop. As a people leader I adore seeing my team’s comfort zone expand, struggle of the past become skills and for team members to step up to the plate and take on new responsibilities. At the end of the day, that’s the best part of my job!
Ultimately, none of my principles are revolutionary. As I read them on paper, I find them quite unoriginal on their own. That being said, I think the key lies in applying all of them, all the time. As a millennial leader, I find it critical to lead with empathy and to put people before deliverables. I find it critical to understand each person I work with so that I can support both their personal and professional growth in the best way possible. Every person at work has a distinct personality, distinct needs, goals, skills and fears. By taking the time to understand each individual, we can tailor their role and responsibilities to create positions where they can be motivated, thrive and grow. We will spend more than 70.000 hours in our lives at work, wouldn't it be great to make sure the majority of that time is spent feeling good and feeling like our contribution matters? To make this happen we need to lead with empathy, we need to create a work environment where it is safe to express vulnerabilities and concerns and where people matter more than deliverables.
As millennials become the dominant part of the workforce and as Gen Z slowly starts to take part in the labor market, the need for more empathetic leadership is rising. As per my observations, the younger generations don’t understand the traditional corporate leadership style and are not drawn to it. They seek to be seen, they seek to be heard, they seek purpose and they want to be led with empathy. I firmly believe that we need more modern corporate leadership styles and as Scorpions said in their famous song, I feel a wind of change coming.
P.S. This article would not be complete without a thank you to my team for helping me become a better leader every day. Thank you! 🙏