Welcome to the brave new world of the millennial CEO

Peter Crush

Monday 19 September 2016

They’re people barely out of their twenties but already they’re running companies – so what’s the deal with millennial CEOs?

A sure-fire way to feel old is realising that millennials (those born between 1980 and 1999) will soon make up the majority of workers; and those born in 2000 will imminently start mainstream employment, too. What might be more shocking to some is seeing millennials reach CEO-level. High profile millennial CEOs include Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (32) and Box CEO Aaron Levie (30) – people a decade or two away from a mid-life crisis that mainstream business opinion still regards as not normally being experienced enough to reach such lofty roles.

So, why would any company want a wet-behind-the-ears millennial CEO? It’s a question that certainly divides opinion.

On the one hand, millennials are what the Frontier Project’s Jason Ashlock calls the ‘Why do you do?’ rather than the ‘What do you do?’ generation. They question convention and want to do things differently. They eschew the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) mentality, ­choosing quality over quantity when it comes to life’s experiences, and have strong moral/CSR credentials. On the other hand, detractors say no amount of effort or desire can make up for their limited years. So who’s right?

Certainly, millennials can’t cram 40 years’ experience into 20, but this is also the generation that doesn’t see a title on someone’s business card as a licence to lead. To them, leadership is not a position, it’s an activity, and in the spirit of the more ‘authentic leadership’ styles they’re known for, leadership is something this cadre believe can start at any age, and for anyone. In fact, millennials actually prefer their leadership to be challenged, believing in ‘consensus leadership’ and what academics call ‘halocracy’. This is where traditional hierarchy is turned on its head, with decision-making being more participative and bottom up, thereby generating much greater employee engagement.

The big question is whether any of this actually produces businesses that are better run. According to Daniel Newman, author of The Millennial CEO, millennials often feel trapped both by the desire to lead and by the opportunity, while also being fearful that detractors will jump on any poor decision. Research already suggests millennials – who grew up in more stressful times – are far more level-headed than many give them credit for. But the corollary of this is that CEO millennials will also be more unwilling to take the sort of big financial risks that more charismatic and decisive CEOs have always been famous for.

What’s clear is that millennial CEOs don’t subscribe to the doors-shut mentality of yesterday. They are approachable and crave support. Some may see this as weakness, but plenty more will see it as a check on the narcissism, arrogance and even psychopathic tendencies that many more traditional CEOs are prone to display after years of being allowed to do what they will unchecked. So, while they may still attract surprise (or even jealously), millennial CEOs are here, and, as their experience grows, it’s odds on that they’ll only get better.

To learn more about how technology progression is changing businesses and the ways the C-suite can stay ahead of the curve, check the fourth instalment in our series, Office 2020: What 21st-century organisations need to know.



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