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MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What is the biggest leadership lesson you’ve learned in the past year? is written by Gloria Cordes Larson, president of Bentley University.
The most important leadership lesson I’ve learned in the past year is that you must never stop learning to be a leader. As leaders, we need to be fluid and open to change. Now, more than ever, we need to adapt to the people we’re leading. Active leadership can’t be simply a top-down approach — it needs to be reflective of those around us.
Perhaps the most vivid example of this, and the reason for my epiphany, is the rise of the millennial workforce and continuous conversations around it. This generation has likely faced more scrutiny than any other before it. They are viewed by some as entitled and lazy, when in fact they are quite the opposite. And while it may be true that they do not fit perfectly into the existing professional landscape, that is not necessarily a negative. They are changing the workplace for the better. We, as leaders, need to change along with it.
Earlier this year, millennials (people between 18 and 34) became the largest generation in the U.S. workforce. They now number more than a third of the U.S. labor pool, surpassing Generation X (people between 35 and 50). There’s no doubt in my mind that millennials are going to change the world — and not just because of their sheer numbers. While millennials care about the bottom line of a company, they also care about their community and the environment. They have a “triple bottom line” way of thinking — a focus on people and planet, in addition to profit.
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I’m equally intrigued by the generation behind millennials – known by some as “Gen Z,” or anyone born after 1995. As a university president, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of these Gen Zers as they begin to tour college campuses this fall. From my vantage point, they seem to be open-minded, diverse, practical, solution-oriented, self-reliant, and resourceful.
Interacting directly with these new generations firsthand has taught me a valuable lesson in leadership. Instead of trying to force them into behaving a certain way, I’ve found it’s much more useful and productive to try to understand “their way” and perhaps adopt their positive practices.
For example, consider the environment. In a study conducted by Bentley University, 95% of millennials said a company’s ethics are very important to them, including 22% who cared the most about a company’s policies toward the environment. This focus on the environment has caused many companies to change their existing programs in favor of stronger sustainability policies and practices.
We’ve also seen leaders embrace a stronger commitment to diversity, flexibility, and work-life balance. These are significant, constructive changes that have been influenced by the millennial workforce. They are a direct result of leaders listening and understanding what matters to their employees and acting on it. My mantra these days is pretty simple: don’t do things the same way, do them better. The most effective way to do that is to be open to change.
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