By Daniel Moore
Amanda Olar had an abundance of empathy for others. She’d earned an undergraduate degree in neuroscience and spent more than two years working at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
But she discovered quickly, after enrolling in business school at Carnegie Mellon with aspirations of working in health care administration, that some of the skills she used in dealing with patients don’t always translate well to being a leader in the business world.
“Giving direct feedback, very candid, honest, sometimes not-so-positive feedback, was something I needed to work on,” Olar said. “I identified at the very beginning that, OK, I need to get more comfortable with this.”
CMU faculty discovered this about her in the first month of classes using the entrance assessment done by the Accelerate Leadership Center, a program started two years ago to complement the school’s masters of business administration curriculum. When she finishes in May, the 27-year-old second-year graduate student will join 740 students who have used Accelerate to hone their leadership skills.
Managing the millennial generation commands much of the focus and fret of today’s corporate leaders. Programs like Accelerate are among those working a step ahead to harness the tendencies of what experts call the most “cared-for” generation and translate them into leadership skills.
The program was born out of a recognition that students in CMU’s Tepper School of Business, almost all of whom are members of the millennial generation, need additional leadership training before entering the professional world, said Laura Maxwell, the program’s executive director.
The program is so personalized and gushing with feedback and encouragement, the term “growth areas” has come to replace “weaknesses”, that CMU officials hesitate to compare it to anything seen in leadership development before.
“I don’t know if we use the word ‘training’ at all,” Maxwell said. “We focus so much on the individual.”
A culinary analogy comes to Jim Delaney’s mind whenever he thinks of grooming the next generation of corporate leaders: “We have to bake it in, not frost it on.”
In 2010, Delaney founded Engine For Good, a Minneapolis-based service that designs customized leadership programs to identify “high potential professionals” in nonprofits and corporations who have not yet reached a managerial role.
Companies spend 17 percent of their leadership development budgets to train such employees, according to a report in May from Bersin by Deloitte, a research firm in Oakland, Calif. In the report, Bersin by Deloitte calls that “a healthy dose of funding” for millennials; Delaney thinks it’s not enough.
He thinks vice presidents and above typically receive the most leadership training. “They’re already leaders,” he said.
Engine For Good programs issue a challenge to up-and-coming employees to solve. Generally they are given three problems common for Delaney’s nonprofit and corporate clients: generate earned income; develop metrics to prove the group is effective; and provide the next generation with real leadership experience, not a hypothetical scenario.
“I think a lot of millennials say, ‘I can be a leader'” based on their skills with technology and social media, Delaney said. “But I think there are foundational, fundamental things everyone needs to be a leader. … You know a lot, but just knowing it isn’t enough.
“You’ve got to be able to teach others what you know.”
Then, of course, there are the actual tendencies of the generation.
According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of millennials recently hired, pay scale ranked fourth among the aspects of the job that led them to accept an offer. More than three times as important? “The opportunity for personal development.”
Collaboration, a work-life balance, meaning and purpose in work tasks, all these characteristics in a leader means the workplace environment will become more relaxed and more mobile, said Sarah Sladek, CEO of XYZ University, a Minneapolis-based generational training and management consulting firm whose Facebook description claims it has the “antidote for brain drains and retirement waves.”
The image of a corporate executive with these tendencies can perplex those tasked with training the new generation of leaders, she said.
“Hierarchy is nearing an end and collaboration is emerging in its place,” Sladek said. The millennial generation has “been raised to do it, cycle times will demand it, and technology will continue to enable it.”
Ronald Placone, faculty lead on CMU’s Accelerate program, said the millennial chief executive will place greater value on proven progress than an employee’s title. “They think about leadership in general. They’re more drawn to the practice of leadership than the concept of leadership.”
Part of Accelerate’s 2-hour entrance assessment involves receiving a simulated email from a troubled employee who needs an immediate, typed answer, Olar said. As she typed, another prompt popped up on the screen, then another, then another.
During the assessment, which is all computer-based, “you’re always responding” to scripted corporate scenarios such as “disgruntled team members, sudden and impending problems with supply chain, different priorities for individual team members,” she said.
“It gives you all of these comprehensive results on where you are at in your leadership journey,” Olar said.
Students can then build a foundation for how to work on their “growth areas,” starting with a post-assessment feedback session with Maxwell to review the results and myriad opportunities for individualized coaching sessions.
For Brigid Johnson, who led a small technology team at JPMorgan Chase & Co. before heading to CMU for business school, productivity often requires the ability to motivate others.
“It was difficult to motivate. It was difficult to communicate urgency,” Johnson said. “I could not get work done through others, and I ended up doing it all. And I knew that wasn’t the right answer.”
Maxwell coached her to ask more open-ended questions at meetings to elicit collaboration and, from there, motivation.
Johnson, who graduated last May and now works in Seattle as a senior product manager for Amazon, said the millennial generation will boost innovation by giving more time to hear input from everyone at the table, all without sacrificing the core objective to get stuff out the door.
“I took those skills of building relationships and involving others, and I applied them,” she said. “I was able to gain information and earn their trust.”