CEO Secrets to Leading Millennials

 CEO Secrets to Leading Millennials


By Prabhakar Gopalan

As more and more baby boomers retire and Millennials enter the workforce, CEOs need to change their leadership styles to be effective. What worked in the past is not going to work now.

Be the Product CEO

The age of the generalist CEO is over. There’s not going to be another Jack Welch running a conglomerate of billion dollar businesses by managing spreadsheet accountants in the ivory tower. Ten member startups are disrupting 100-year-old businesses. Ask Ginny Rometty at IBM. Why? It’s because the founders of these startups are Product CEOs. They understand the customer better and have learned how to build and market a high quality product.

CEOs need to get their hands dirty in the product development process from deeply caring about the user experience details all the way through the product launch. Home sharing startup Airbnb’s founder and CEO, Brian Chesky, doesn’t have a home and stays all year at Airbnb rentals so he can truly understand his customer – homeowners who share their homes with strangers. It’s a fanatical degree of customer understanding that product CEOs like Chesky demonstrate to their internal teams and set an example of the work culture. When Steve Jobs was showing off the product details in each delightful Apple product launch, Steve Balmer at Microsoft delegated the product experience to demonstrators on-stage. The difference is stark. People are willing to pay 10 times more to buy an iPhone than an equivalent Android phone, while Microsoft recently took a $7.6B charge on its balance sheet for its failed 2014 Nokia acquisition.

Be the Working Leader

Millennials work hard and play hard. They like to see working CEOs, not jet setting CEOs. Got a big product launch ahead? Want to inspire the team? CEOs should come to work early and leave work late and let everyone know they care deeply about the business. It’s easy to lecture employees and demand great work but harder to set a personal example. Marissa Mayer at Yahoo spent a whole weekend with her design team by rolling up her sleeves and helping design the company’s new logo. A CEO from a different generation would’ve simply ‘delegated’ away that task as a boring chore, while a CEO for the Millennials gets her hands dirty by showing her deep interest and caring about everything the company stands for. Application software monitoring company Unicorn startup, New Relic’s CEO Lew Cirne, still writes code with his team to launch new products.

Be the Authentic CEO

Millennials are less impressed by what a wealthy CEO can acquire with content hacks like hiring ghostwriters to fill out their daily or weekly quota of public writing. It is shocking to employees when the CEO does not know what’s going on in the real world – including what was posted on their behalf in a given day. CEOs shouldn’t be outsourcing their blogging to their personal PR and content managers. Content is cheap to acquire. Authenticity is hard to build.

Be the Empathic CEO

Millennials demand a healthy balance of communication with the company leadership team. Flat organizational structures and peer-to-peer level communication styles between company associates are the kind of work experiences that are most attractive to Millennials. Apps like Slack are changing workplace communication and how the CEO responds on a chat channel and in-person are all-important in keeping the team together. A CEO that’s away golfing with his buddies while his executive admin runs team meetings is the kind of behavior that is in poor taste. Showing up to team meetings, sharing the company’s struggles openly and celebrating successes with the team demonstrates leadership through empathy for those that blocked their time to meet with the CEO.

Be the Engaged CEO

In a market full of a growing number of analytics and data products, it is easy to instrument the company for weekly status reports and push notifications of business health. But that doesn’t substitute real management and leadership by listening and communicating with teams both online and offline where the real work happens. Socially adept CEOs are quickly able to bond with their employees and raise the motivation and work experience for the teams, while socially awkward CEOs resort to micromanagement through MBOs and goal setting software with weekly and daily status reports.

The people at Enron had fancy metrics, MBOs, McKinsey advice and a high flying CEO, but in the end a lot of the problems could’ve been averted if there was, as Tom Peters called it, MBWA – management by wandering around. CEOs shouldn’t be seduced by the mirage of quarterly goals and weekly status reports coming off the latest app. These are crutches for the emotionally disconnected CEO. A great CEO can tell the pulse of her company by connecting deeply even before the dashboard failure occurs.

Prabhakar Gopalan is Principal at PG Consulting, an Austin-based firm advising CEOs at VC & PE funded companies with strategies turning into growth in 90 days or less. Visit


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