The year was 1974. My first day on a new job as a brand new graphic designer fresh out of the DAA Program at the University of Cincinnati. DAA because the ‘Planning” part of DAAP had yet to be added.
My coworkers and I gathered in the Art Department at a mid-sized ad agency, and awaited the appearance of our leader. The Art Director was a grizzled veteran of the agency business, one who could show us the ropes. Finally, I was in, ready to re-design the world. I will never forget his inspiring words that day:
“Gentlemen, consider today a race, and the winner keeps his job.”
What? No welcome to the team, here’s Bob who you can shadow for a couple days to get squared away, not even directions to the rest rooms.
Despite this warm welcome, I did manage to carve out a career, eventually founding and owning a 16-person Marketing and PR firm for 26 years. I also learned how to be an effective leader, not by emulating others, but by observing what worked, and what did not.
There is much discussion about how Millennials challenge many of today’s traditional business practices, so it’s not surprising that they are also challenging traditional, autocratic leadership. Challenging autocratic leadership is not new, and is not the private reserve of the Millennial generation. Read any ancient Roman manuscript, and you will quickly learn every established leadership hierarchy has been challenged by a younger generation. And yet, the world still hasn’t gone to hell in a handcart like my father predicted.
There are no rules to follow to become a good leader. Instead, there are principles that can guide you.
Inspire, don’t command
What are we trying to accomplish as a team, a tribe, or a business, and why is it important to each of us as individuals and the community? Your team will be comprised of individuals, each with different aspirations, ambitions, experiences and ideas. Embrace this synergy. Mentor collaboration.
Teach financial literacy
The millennial generation isn’t attracted to the money or recognition associated with leadership positions. Rather, they want to make a difference in the world and be a part of companies that care about more than the bottom line by supporting worthy causes in the community. This can only be accomplished if the company’s bottom line is firmly in the black.
Business decisions are made from necessity, not based on dreams. Educating your team on the financial aspects of business will help them understand why their participation is important. If you want to save the world, help earn the money that will enable it.
Teach your team to be resilient
The skills I learned earning a five-year degree stood me in good stead for the first twenty years of my career. Then, almost overnight, they became obsolete. Technology changed the world. Today, the speed of technology transforming business has accelerated to the point, the skills a student entering a four-year degree program will learn will be obsolete by the time they graduate. Whole industries will disappear, and others will emerge. It is as exciting as it is terrifying. The ability to handle the curve ball, embrace rapid change and thrive will depend upon a resilient mindset.
Embrace work-life balance in practice
Recently, we adopted a policy of unlimited vacation for all team members. I know, it sounds crazy. In point of fact, it empowers our team to self-govern themselves. I’m not following people around to see that they arrived ten minutes late or left ten minutes early. I’m not tracking who took off two hours to see a doctor, or who worked from home today. I am likewise not concerned with who worked until the wee hours of the night to meet a client deadline. I am demonstrating my confidence in the team to accomplish their work responsibly, and perform at the highest level. In so doing, it will also reveal those who do not.
Copying someone else’s leadership style doesn’t work. Being an effective leader requires both soft skills to inspire people, and hard skills to manage the business. Both require frequent examination.