4 Characteristics That Show What Kind of C-suite Leaders Millennials Will Be

Millennials in the C-suite is becoming a reality, since the oldest millennials will turn 35 this year. As demographics shift profoundly, we need to step back and ask the broader question: What kind of C-suite leaders will millennials be?

To better understand what characteristics usually distinguish the C-suite from other executives, we measured seven “classic” C-suite figures—CEOs, CFOs, COOs, CMOs, General Counsels, CIOs/CTOs, and CHROs—across 60 psychometric attributes. We identified four attributes (seeking varied activities, being adaptable, trusting others, and embracing calculated risk) that truly distinguished C-suite executives on a statistically significant basis.

We then looked at millennials across these four attributes, to understand how well they do or do not match the personality profile of the current C-suite.

When it comes to matching well with today’s C-suite, two traits stand out:

1. Seeking varied activities. Millennials have grown up in a world of multiplicities—hundreds of TV channels and an infinite array of web and now mobile content. Accordingly, they seek “variety, novelty and speed.” This is a good match, since even the most narrowly defined functional C-suite roles naturally involve a wide gamut of activities (as opposed to pre-C-suite roles which have a more singular focus, such as treasurer rather than CFO).

2. Being adaptable. Millennials thrive by adapting. Rapid technological change combined with shifting and rapidly redrawn political realities has shaped a generation that can make nimble shifts at will. This adaptability is palpable—60% of hiring managers in a recent study perceived millennials as adaptable (compared to just 40% for Gen X). This trait is also pervasive at the C-suite level since, unsurprisingly: in the last couple of decades, C-suite leaders have grappled with substantial disruptions.

Millennials’ performance on the other two “C-suite traits,” though, tells a different story:

3. Trusting others. We often stereotype millennials as naïvely baring their souls on social media. However, they are, in fact, less trusting than previous generations. Pew Center research shows millennials as notably skeptical of others—only 19% of this group believed that most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 37% of Silents and 40% of Boomers. Could this be a limiting factor in this group’s rise to the C-suite? Absolutely—a lack of trust in others could limit their rise through organizations where collaborative skills are critical to success.

Organizations can help millennials develop themselves to be more trusting by facilitating robust sponsorship relationships, so millennials see the benefits from placing career trust in a co-worker. They should also create incentive structures that explicitly reward tightly knit teams.

4. Embracing calculated risk. Belying our mental stereotype of extreme sports enthusiasts dangling off mountaintops, in an ever-riskier world, millennials shy away from risk. In fact, a recent UBS study showed that millennials are as conservative regarding risk as the group that came of age during WWII. For progression toward roles such as CEO—where taking the right risks is integral to the mandate—this conservative attitude can have a chilling effect on advancement.

Organizations can help millennials develop themselves to better embrace calculated risk by rewarding “failing well”—perfectionism can be the enemy of risk-taking. They should also balance support for data-driven decisions with an open dialogue on the virtues of “trusting your gut” and making transformative leaps accordingly.

The question then arises, as millennials move toward the C-suite, will they become more trusting and less risk-averse? Or will the very characteristics of C-suite executives change—will the C-suite become more conservative and less collaborative? Only time will tell, but the board and the executive team don’t have to accept what comes—they can help build their CEO—and, in turn, affect their company’s future.



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