Preparing Millennial Leaders to Coach Gen Z
I recently grabbed coffee with a highly-motivated college senior who’s graduating in May. Rachel is completing a four-year degree in three years and she’s part of Generation Z (Gen Z), the generation born between 1997 and 2012.
“I have a hypothesis,” I said. “Considering that the iPhone was released in 2007, your generation has grown up around modern technology. With instant access to information, it seems like Gen Z is accustomed to independently researching problems and finding solutions. If you were given a project at work, I imagine you’d want to create your own process rather than receive a step-by-step directive. Do you think that’s accurate?”
Rachel largely agreed but added important clarifications. “I didn’t grow up with a tablet or smartphone,” alluding to the habits of today’s kids. Already in 2017, 42 percent of young children (age 8 and under), had their own tablet. Similar to her Gen Z peers, Rachel didn’t get her first phone until she was in middle school.
Circling back to my question, she said, “If someone already knows an effective way to get something done, I would appreciate some guidance. I had one internship where the assignments were too undefined; I didn’t even have a starting point. At the same time, I do value the opportunity to be creative.” Later in our conversation, Rachel added that she’s well-positioned to share her tech knowledge with more senior professionals and integrate new tools into the workplace.
We both acknowledged that leaders must strike a delicate balance when coaching Gen Z. Leaders need to provide sufficient context without micromanaging. While this struggle, to delegate without micromanaging, is not a new challenge, the solution looks different for this new generation.
Millennials Are Becoming Organizational Leaders
Preparing Millennial Leaders to successfully lead Gen Z employees is increasingly relevant for a few reasons.
1. Ranging in age from 24 to 39 in 2020, Millennial Leaders are on the rise.
2. Millennials possess a strong desire to advance.
3. With the oldest Gen Zers around 23 years old, a new wave of college graduates is entering the workforce.
Before writing this article, I also spoke with Victor, a professional who works at a college and supervises twenty-five Gen Z student employees. He warned against making broad assessments about Gen Zers, saying, “There are so many variables that influence Gen Z’s work ethic and style—their socialization, geographic region, and socioeconomic status, to name a few.” Although generational research is a helpful reference, it’s important to include a disclaimer here: There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to successfully coaching Gen Z.
Preparing Millennial Leaders to Coach Gen Z
It’s critical for organizations to foster conversation among generations. Conversations can reveal generational differences and provide valuable sociohistorical context. And as my conversations with Rachel and Victor illustrate, face-to-face conversations are a great way to make stereotypes and assumptions more nuanced.
Here are three specific things Millennial Leaders should consider when coaching Gen Z. These recommendations are supported by broad research, yet they're also illustrated with personal anecdotes.
Communication. Victor shared that his college staff members use Snapchat, GroupMe, and Instagram to communicate with each other about work. While organizations may not use those exact apps, workplace equivalents include collaborative platforms like Microsoft Teams or Slack. But text-based apps aren’t actually Gen Z’s first choice for communicating at work. In a Gen Z SHRM article, 16-year-old, Josh Miller explains, “While it’s often assumed that Generation Z is focused solely on technology, talking face-to-face is our preferred method of communication. Sure, social media is important and has undoubtedly affected who we are as a generation, but when we’re communicating about something that matters to us, we seek authenticity and honesty, which are best achieved in person.” Millennial Leaders need to acknowledge Gen Z’s shifting communication preferences and make time for face-to-face meetings.
Mental Health. Since middle school, Gen Z has used apps like Instagram (2010) and Snapchat (2011). As Miller stated, these apps have undoubtedly affected their generation—both in good ways and bad. One con of social media is how it’s fostered a comparison culture, just one contributing factor to Gen Z’s heightened struggles with stress and mental health. As TIME reports, “45% said social media made them feel judged, and 38% said it made them feel bad about themselves.” Victor shared that Millennial Leaders may need to help Gen Z cope when they don’t achieve the illusory level of success they see on social media. When coaching Gen Z, Millennial Leaders must consider their role as mental health advocates.
Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI). Gen Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation yet, prioritizing diversity—across race, gender, and orientation—more than any other generation. As Deloitte reports, “If your leadership team is looking pretty homogenous, you need to [transform] the culture and the inclusivity of the workplace.” Relative to older generations, Gen Z holds less traditional views on gender and identity, often sharing their preferred pronouns (e.g. he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/theirs) to respectfully acknowledge varying identities. In fact, according to Pew Research, 35% of Gen Z knows someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns, compared with 25% of Millennials. To help Gen Zers feel heard and supported in the workplace, Millennial Leaders need to embrace the individuality of Gen Z.
As the oldest Millennials approach forty and the oldest Gen Zers graduate college, organizations need to understand what Gen Z wants in the workplace and train Millennial leaders accordingly. Organizations can gain a basic understanding of generational differences through research, but it’s critical to foster conversations among generations. As Millennial Leaders prepare to coach Gen Z, they should acknowledge shifting communication preferences, serve as mental health advocates, and expand their understanding of DEI. The work world is lucky to have these two generations working in tandem—now, to find that delicate balance between micromanaging and delegating.