Sir Alex Ferguson talks about Strategic Leadership

Preparing Your Team For Leadership: From Baby Boomers to Millennials

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There’s a change at the top.

The Baby Boomer Boss, whose leadership style is based on a “chain of command,” is getting ready to hand the reins to a new generation: The Millennial manager.

As demographics change, so does the makeup of the workforce: There’s a fundamental shift in priorities for Millennial workers – a generation due to make up 50 percent of the workforce by 2020.

As employees, Millennials value flexibility, a fair work-life balance, personal development, honest feedback, and recognition. They are also the first generation in the labor force to be digital natives.

The workplace itself has changed too. Individual offices gave way to open plan spaces, which have now begun being replaced with hot desking and even “telecommuting.” Hierarchies within businesses are being replaced by flat management “lattices” and the rise of the on-demand workforce requires businesses to take a new approach to the employer-employee relationship.

And how will the rising Millennial leader treat these new challenges?  And what is the role of the Baby Boomer to prepare the next generation for success?

In Depth

While workers’ values and the business landscape have changed, one thing that hasn’t is the core objectives of leadership: to take your organization forward and foster its success. To achieve this, all organizations need to invest time and energy in bringing in new talent and nurturing their professional development.

Establishing A Pipeline: Why Nurture Talent?

When Sir Alex Ferguson became manager of Manchester United football club in 1986, he immediately made talent acquisition a priority. The club began scouting for young, local players. “I wanted to build a foundation, a football club that we could rely on, and there was a consistency and continuity full of players coming through the club,” Sir Alex said. By giving new players an opportunity and working closely with them in training, he fostered great loyalty in his team. “And they still call me Boss.”

Once he had established a talent pipeline, Sir Alex began overseeing the development of his team – establishing mentor programs where more experienced players would help out the new recruits. “[David] Beckham (one of Manchester United’s star players) would come in at night time and train with the kids,” Sir Alex said. “We were lucky to get human beings who had a natural desire to do well.” By leveraging the star talent within the organization, Sir Alex was able to foster the sharing of skills and experience between the generations.

Nurturing his players gave Sir Alex the opportunity to develop a mindset in his team, ingraining a clear strategic message – that winning was important – into their training. This helped the team act as one.

To enhance this focus, Sir Alex also highlighted the importance of consistency in his leadership style: “I never changed as a person, so that eradicates confusion in your staff.”

Under Sir Alex’s leadership, Manchester United won 38 trophies in 26 years, and his success demonstrates the value of astutely developing talent. But how do today’s employers go about preparing their star Millennial talent to lead? And what will the priorities of Millennial leaders be?

The New Priorities For Millennial Leaders

To understand the challenges of managing a Millennial workforce, leaders will have to understand what this generation values when it comes to a career.


According to Aon’s whitepaper – ‘Managing Millennials: Changing Perspectives for a Changing Workforce’ – ~60 percent of Millennials cited a flexible working schedule as a priority. This is mirrored by the growth in on-demand workers, and will be a key challenge for Millennial leaders, who enter management at a time of declining employee engagement levels. Those seeking to become successful leaders will have to find ways to create a cohesive team environment, without relying on their team sharing the same physical space on a daily basis.

Career Development

Millennials have clear expectations that their career development will be nurtured – citing this as the most important factor, after pay rises, as the one thing that was most likely to improve their engagement and sense of job satisfaction. Today’s first Millennial leaders are already observing the benefits.

“The most satisfying moments for me as captain are when I see someone on the team achieving their goals,” says Niamh Briggs, Captain of Ireland’s women’s national rugby union team. “When their potential is realized, which makes us a stronger, more cohesive group.”

Honest Feedback

Millennials value feedback more than any other generation in the workforce. They want – and will need to be – honest leaders. Manchester United Captain Michael Carrick, considers communication an important leadership quality. “I have learned that the best leaders tend to be good communicators,” Carrick said. “Communication is definitely key so that everyone around you knows what you are doing and what you are thinking and why you are making those decisions.”

Frank and honest exchanges are important for Millennials so managers should be prepared for a two-way mentorship. This means that as the mentor passing on advice, the mentee would also coach their superior in skills at which they excel.  This is particularly valuable in the instance of younger employees educating senior staff about new technology.

Better feedback helps junior employees learn that mistakes are inevitable and there to be learned from. Carrick considers this important in developing junior talent: “I know it’s hard especially when you are young but you are best not to dwell on the wrong decisions you have made. Try to learn from what you did wrong and always remember that good things can sometimes happen out of a decision you thought, at the time, was wrong.”

Briggs too, agrees, not only is feedback necessary for improvement, but also, a self-evaluation of performance: “Every decision has been a learning opportunity, I don’t see these as failures, I prefer to park it, learn from it and move on.”

The New Way Of Leading

The changing priorities of the workforce, and the response they require, can be summed up in one word: Collaboration.

Neil Shastri, Leader, Global Insights & Innovation, Aon expanded on the importance of this: “First-time managers need to learn to work collaboratively, rather than  tout their individual skills. New managers should demonstrate that they can work across silos, or get their team to work more collaboratively, so they can drive better business results.”

Collaboration requires the building of a network within your organization, and key to preparing Millennials for leadership will be making it more versatile and experienced. “Millennials in particular want a broad range of experiences,” Shastri said. “As you lead, you have to make sure you’re able to move people around. This means thinking very consciously about what your team wants to achieve – personally and professionally and actively planning for tomorrow:, which talent is ready for the next step up  and at what time.”

Taking an active approach to talent and leadership development, and recognizing what top performers consider important helps make employees feel valued. And companies need not shy away from telling candidates they are being considered for leadership. Aon’s Global Top Companies for Leaders Study discovered that transparent identification of high-potential leaders was a consistent trait in top performing organizations.

All leaders have a responsibility to ensure their organization will continue to exist in the future. And a strategy for developing the next generation of talent from junior roles to senior leadership is integral. As Sir Alex said in an interview for the Harvard Business Review: “Winning a game is only a short-term gain – you can lose the next game. Building a club brings stability and consistency.” A great team may bring a successful season, but taking the necessary – and forward-thinking – steps to build a  great organization can ensure success year after year.

Aon is a Principal Partner of Manchester United and an Official Partner of the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 and Irish Women’s Rugby Team.

Talking Points

“When you run any organization, you have to look as far down the road as far you can and create a conveyor belt of talent… It’s always easier to produce a consistent level of high performance when you nourish youngsters. They can inject fantastic spirit and will repay you back with loyalty. Once they know you are batting for them, they will accept your way.” – Sir Alex Ferguson, former Manchester United manager

“Hiring high-quality diverse talent is an intimate, concentrated game, not a high-volume game. You cannot parachute into a diverse school, pass out trinkets and expect students to rally to you. You need to take the time to get invested.” – Kelly Jones, Director of Talent Acquisition and Global University Relations, Cisco Systems

Further Reading

10 Warning Signs Your Leadership Pipeline Is At Risk – Forbes, July 5, 2017

Three Effective Ways To Manage A Multigenerational Workforce – Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 8, 2017

How Millennials Will Lead In The C-Suite – Knowledge@Wharton, April 12, 2017

5 Ways Millennial Leaders Are Surprising – CNBC, June 2, 2017

Aon Hewitt Top Companies For Leaders 2017 – Aon Survey