How to overcome the four tensions of millennial leadership development

3 minute read

Young talent wants to learn from others, career paths and guidance. Investing in emerging leaders therefore needs a combination of human and technology interaction

Ines Wichert


There is little doubt that we need to attend to the development of our junior talent and emerging leaders: we have spent considerable time and money to recruit the best into our organisations and then more to get them ready for the job. If we don’t invest in our emerging leaders’ development, this upfront investment may have been in vain, as one of two things can happen: our brightest talent leave the organisation as they didn’t get the development opportunities they were looking for, or if they stay, are not developing into the agile leaders that we need them to become in order to steer our organisations through increased volatility and disruption. Leadership development rarely happens by accident.

Organisations need to overcome four tension points to provide effective yet affordable development solutions for more junior talent.

1. Visibility of emerging talent versus costs

To support our most promising talent effectively, we first need to know who they are. For more junior talent, we often don’t have this visibly as our succession plans and talent development programmes don’t reach this far down into the organisation. Visibility takes time and resources which we often don’t have: a manager’s time to identify someone as talent and foster their career or HR resources to run programmes to identify, track and support promising employees.

2. Technology versus people

One way to reach more people in organisations in a cost-effective manner is technology: virtual classrooms, e-learning and development apps. While our junior talent are happy to embrace such technology, they also want to learn from others. In emerging data from our 2019/2020 Millennial Development survey (results not yet published), learning from others takes the top three places in younger talents’ preferred way of learning: getting feedback from managers, having a mentor and/or coach, and learning from peers.

3. Flexibility versus clarity

In addition to learning from others, our emerging talent value the clarity of career paths, as these show what is possible and how to get there. Career paths are the compass that leads the way. Organisations can be large and complex beasts and while working out how the world of work operates, it is good to know the general direction of travel.

Many organisations, however, no longer invest in defining career paths, as reorganisations can make these obsolete quickly. Furthermore, new technologies demand new skills and jobs. App developers, social media or sustainability managers, for example, did not exist a decade ago. Finally, an increasing move toward agile working means that permanent job roles may no longer be the most effective way to organise work.

4. Self-directed learners versus learning support

Organisations need employees who are self-directed learners: learners who discover their own strengths and development needs, identify the best development from a large portfolio of self-service development services (mostly online) and then embark on development, reflect and improve. It’s not only cost that drives this desire. Given continual disruption, organisations need leaders who have learned to manage their own development as lifelong learners. More junior talent, however, want guidance. Knowing how to develop effectively is a skill that many are yet to learn.

Augmented development

Any solution that effectively reconciles these four tensions is likely to be a combination of technology and human input. Technology can play an important role in providing a scalable infrastructure with relevant guidance and self-assessment and using AI to provide personalised recommendations for next career steps without restricting organisations’ need for flexibility. This takes the heavy lifting out of self-directed learning.

At the same time, we must integrate the power of learning through others and include managers, coaches and mentors in the process so that the self-directed learner is supported in moments that matter most: when they are taking crucial decisions, are stuck or have completed projects. Even the most effective self-directed learner benefits from sounding boards, occasional guidance and feedback. Effective technology solutions do not only nudge learners but their managers and supporters, too, to make development happen.

Technology is scalable and cost effective and will allow organisations to cover a much larger group of talent, reaching further down into the organisation, providing better visibility of early career talent and their development. Furthermore, it can also help organisations track the learning culture of an organisation, identifying areas of good practice where development projects are taking place and where managers are supporting learners. It can also identify areas of less good practice. It is only with the right culture of learning support in place that we can justifiably expect people to become self-directed learners.

Published 19 September 2019
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