Millennials Wisdom: Early Career Leadership Lessons

margarita mayo

As part of my course on Leading People for the Master in Management (MiM) program at @IEBusiness, I ask my millennials students to write a report that analyzes a critical event that occurred during their prior work experience.  I have them look at it from a leadership and organizational behavior angle and find that this report is much more effective than a traditional exam in determining how much they have learned in my course. It is also far more satisfying, as a professor, to realize how the next generation of leaders are shaping their assumptions and behaviors in regards to leading people and organizations.

The report is a learning experience of reflection and self-awareness for the students, who tend to write about either a failure or a success story in their early career. When evaluating a past failure, they are able – thanks, in my opinion, to the class – to look at the event with new eyes, to see and understand the failure more clearly, which helps them devise new strategies which will help them deal better with similar situations in the future.  Those students who choose to describe their success stories show a fuller understanding of their own strengths, which helps them begin to develop those characteristics further.

Here are the 7 key lessons learned by this year’s class.

Lesson 1: Shared Leadership to Rip the Benefits of Team Talent

Being an entrepreneur is not limited to innovation or creation, but is rather a question of shared leadership… relationships that provide mutual influence between team members.” (Allan Le Chevalier)

When Allan started a successful community webside that hosts an online database of user-generated reviews of local business and services in Paris with three friends, He had to motivate others to achieve a common goal, yet he found himself telling what he thought was the right way to success without listening to others. This authoritarian attitude led him to firing a potentially valuable employee. Allan soon realized that being an effective leader is more than just telling what needs to be done and how.


Lesson 2: Norm of Reciprocity when Building Positive Relationships

“What really stuck with me from this class is the Norm of Reciprocity – we treat others as they have treated us. If you want your salesman to be good and perform well, treat them as they deserve and they will work and give their effort as YOU deserve.” (Karina Frutos)

As a member of a family business in the automobile industry, Karina witnessed how once loyal employees began to openly complain about the poor leadership skills of the sales manager and the lack of interest of the managing director. She is now motivated to go back to her family company and make substantial leadership and cultural changes. She is driven to give the sale workforce the attention they need.


Lesson 3: The Role of Perceived Fairness in Motivation

“All employees are looking for a ´fair return´ and inputs/outputs are put into a relationship. It is vital to make this standard comparison as balanced as possible. As a leader, I would strive to increase job satisfaction by capitalizing on more intrinsic factors such as giving recognition, increasing their level of responsibility and more importantly giving meaning to their work.” (Guillermo Garcia)

Guillermo was appointed Marketing Manager in a hotel in the Austrian Alps. He had to manage a team of three people who were older than him and had worked longer in the company. Two of them clearly resented as leader because they had been hoping for the same promotion. His lack of credibility as a leader caused him enormous stress.  He finally resigned, suggesting the promotion of one of his team members. Although the project was completed, the process was painful because Guillermo became a leader who micro-managed the team, which overloaded him and disengaged further team members.


Lesson 4: Bridging Cultures in Business Collaboration

“Cultural differences can be challenging especially when it comes to different working cultures and different national geographical cultures at the same time… Trying to understand the other culture can be valuable to achieve greater results and closer long term relations.” (Clements Schuster)

A visionary entrepreneur, Clements founded a start-up in Germany to produce electric scooters in collaboration with a Chinese company, that make urban transport environmentally friendly, clean, and affordable. Cultural differences began to arise mainly because of the value of hierarchy and status (e.g., high power distance) in China compare to Germany. Clements realized soon that actions were only taken serious if one of the three co-founders made an order. The Chinese partner company ignored inquires that were not coming directly from the German founders making the process highly inefficient and frustrating.


Lesson 5: Self-awareness in Early Career Choices

“I have learned to keep my eyes on the road ahead. The first thing is to get to know yourself, what interests you, and what motivates you before making a job decision. Social influence has taught us that in ambiguous situations, people tend to rely on information provided by others. The lack of self-awareness that was once my biggest flaw is today one of my strengths.” (Mohamed Bachir)

Mohamed was born in Senegal and studied for a few years in pairs.  However, he found it difficult to fit in in France and decided to move back home. Then after Senegal, he transferred to Boston to finish his degree. Thanks to this seemingly random, soul-searching journey, he knows better how to deal with uncertainty and is more aware that he values personal development and has a passion for mentoring.


Lesson 6: Communication and Feedback in Managing Up

“I learned that communication is a key asset for superiors and employees and that one should not be scared to ask for feedback. It is the best way to develop my strengths and to work on my weaknesses. It is key to sustainably enhance the quality of my future work in order to become a valuable member of any team. Furthermore, it improves the atmosphere in the long term.” (Marco Sevreano)

Marco felt, as new employees often do, the need to showcase his talent; he feared asking questions and for feedback. After working on his new assignment for more than a week, his report was not accepted and Marco’s boss asked another, more experienced employee to do the project over again. The lack of communication with his boss led to Marcos’ early failure. Through the experience, he learned that fostering two-way communication is essential for learning and personal development.


Lesson 7: Crisis Leadership and Decision-Making

“As a leader, I will still keep an ear for my peers and value different opinions. However, I will also be more willing to step up when things become critical. This is beneficial when companies meet challenges and need to make a decision in a short period.” (Berhold Nicklas Lange)

Being the captain of a hockey sport team, Nick was very comfortable with his personal leadership style, which worked well in times of low stress and continuous success. However, in the critical moment when the team was competing for the National Champion, he lamented that he did not make the difficult decisions that would have kept the team from losing the championship final. He learned that participative leaders value the input of team members, but in the end the responsibility of making the final decision rest with the leader.


Millennials face new challenges and opportunities in the workplace and their early career leadership lessons are developed through reflection upon their success and failure stories.

Margarita Mayo is a professor at IE Business School. She is Thinker of the Month for October 2016.

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