Down with the kids: learning to lead gen Z

The high expectations and self-confidence of those new to working life are unnerving many CEOs. How can they deal with this and get the most from their youngest employees?
Business team discussing some papers on the floor in the office

In days gone by, junior workers may have been wary of their bosses, but the boot now seems firmly on the other foot. In October 2021, for instance, the New York Times published a feature entitled “The 37-year-olds are afraid of the 23-year-olds who work for them”. 

The article contained interviews with several business leaders who’d been taken aback by the assertiveness of their gen-Z staff, who cared little for organisational hierarchies and were all too ready to manage upwards, expecting their leaders to align their organisations behind political movements such as Black Lives Matter.

Alex Bodini, CEO of Spin Brands, can relate to this. He is a millennial, while about 70% of his employees are from generation Z. The average age of those working at the social media marketing firm is 24.

“I agree overall that there’s a fear around gen Z,” he admits. “There’s such a difference between them and millennials that it can seem intimidating at first. Everything, from their views and use of language down to the way they dress, can feel totally alien to those of my generation.”

Bodini adds that “high-profile cases of cancel culture” – in which people airing views that are widely deemed unacceptable are shunned – is another reason why gen-Zers “can seem scary on the surface”. The risk of being publicly criticised or even ostracised can make you “walk on eggshells, in the belief that anything you say will be taken out of context and you’ll be seen as tone-deaf or potentially insulting”. 

Combined with the curiosity of youth, being so well informed and hyper-connected makes gen Z uniquely powerful

Fiona Gordon, CEO of ad agency Ogilvy UK, argues that gen-Zers are the first “purely digitally native generation”, which makes them more inclined than their elders to use powerful tech such as social media to broadcast their views and influence the world. 

“When we were young, we probably would have loved the ability to make such an impact too, but they’re probably the first generation for whom this is truly happening, owing to their ability to be global citizens,” she says. “Combined with the curiosity of youth, being so well informed and hyper-connected makes gen Z uniquely powerful.”

Henry Rose Lee, an expert in intergenerational diversity and inclusion, agrees. Many young people avidly follow social media influencers whose careers they aspire to emulate, while they’re comfortable using such networks for commercial ends such as selling second-hand goods, which means they are often “very entrepreneurial in their heads”, she says.

A survey that Lee conducted of people aged 15 to 19 found that 98% wanted to start their own enterprise. On polling the same respondents a year later, she discovered that 2% had actually done so and only 1% were still running a business.

“Research shows that, when gen-Zers are taught how to be entrepreneurs, their aspiration, idealism and optimism clash with reality. They find it’s too hard,” Lee says. “But this entrepreneurial disconnect, which wasn’t there with past generations, does have an impact when gen-Zers enter the workplace, as they can sometimes feel as though their drive is being ignored.”

Another important way in which social media has had an impact, she believes, is that “loyalty and connections to the workplace” are weaker among gen-Zers.

“Family is their first tribe, but social media is their second. Work may be third, but it’s also sometimes sport or music,” Lee observes. “It’s not that gen-Zers are disloyal. It’s simply that work isn’t as embedded in their lives as it was for many people before social media came along.”

She adds that younger workers have a stronger tendency to be influenced by peer groups on social media into jumping ship if they don’t receive the rewards they feel are warranted from their employers. This, Lee acknowledges, can be a source of “irritation and frustration” to their seniors, who are less in thrall to the “voice in their ear”.

Emma Parry is professor of HR management and head of the Changing World of Work group at Cranfield School of Management. She says that traits commonly associated with gen Z, such as the propensity to stand up for their rights and quit if necessary, actually started with gen Y, partly because of shifts in parenting styles. But Parry is generally wary of categorising people based on their age, not least as it “lends itself to stereotyping”. 

There’s a lack of empirical research evidence to support the view “that distinct categories of people in the workforce based on age have different values and expectations”, she says, adding that there are generally “more differences within generational groups than there are between them”. 

Nonetheless, Parry accepts that personal and societal attitudes do shift over time. These are shaped by the context in which each generation grows up and will change according to each individual’s stage of life. Such factors can lead to intergenerational misunderstandings. 

So what can business leaders do to get the best from their younger workers? Bodini’s approach has been to immerse himself in their world. This has included studying the language trends and emojis that gen-Zers use on popular social platforms such as TikTok. He has found that, while millennials typically use a small number of key news sources to stay informed, gen-Zers tend to frequent many more, channel-hopping in the process.

With this factor in mind, Bodini feels that he needs to channel his young employees’ energy carefully. Otherwise, “they’re likely to go off in a million different directions without understanding the key output required”. 

He continues: “To harness their talents, you need to ensure that each role offers a degree of creativity and initiative without giving people free rein. You must therefore be clear about your objectives and priorities. Say how you’d prefer things to be done, but leave about 25% wiggle room for their own interpretation.”

It’s also important to set clear boundaries when it comes to issues such as pay and promotion prospects, Bodini adds. “At Spin Brands we always stress that hunger is good, but impatience is bad. People here know they can’t expect a promotion every six months. They have to spend a couple of years mastering a role first.” 

Another effective way of harnessing gen-Zers’ entrepreneurial urges while giving them a meaningful voice is to set up an innovation centre. Lee recommends staffing this with people from a mix of age groups, who will work together on a particular project for three to six months before rotating out. 

Ogilvy UK calls its version of this approach the SideBoard. The aim is to enable young employees to interact more meaningfully with senior executives and give them the chance to work on initiatives that affect the whole business – for instance, designing its hybrid working model. Reverse mentoring is also used.

Bodini agrees that it’s important for leaders and their youthful staff to engage in such relationships and discuss everything from commercial objectives to cultural matters such as work/life balance and diversity. The goal here is not only to ensure everyone has a voice but also to engender a sense of purpose by helping the whole organisation to see the bigger picture. 

When it comes to handling issues of staff loyalty and retention, Lee believes that leaders who focus on the so-called five Cs – cause, community, collaboration, contribution and career – will encounter the fewest problems.

“You could sum this all up in one word: ‘culture’,” she says. “If you get this right, it’ll have a positive effect on every generation in your organisation, not just gen Z.”