A new generation of project leaders has risen. Here are six rules to succeed in the new world.
Miishe Addy is digitizing logistics in Africa to ease the flow of COVID-19 supplies. Gregory Daniels, PMP, is helping Zoom handle a 30-fold traffic burst amid the Great Lockdown. Marina Tranchitella, PMP, is making sure major sporting events safely score with fans. Boyan Slat is leading a movement to clean up plastic-choked oceans and rivers.
A new generation of project talent has risen around the world. With Gen Z having entered the workforce in real numbers and more millennials taking on management roles, organizations are being dynamically altered. These project leaders have unprecedented digital fluency, an unflinching readiness for change, a naturally collaborative mindset, a deep commitment to inclusion and environmental issues—and very high expectations about what that means for how we all work.
Future 50 project leaders represent this wave of change and talent around the globe—a youthquake that is shaping the future and accelerating innovation in the here and now.
Millennial and Gen Z project leaders are born for and of The Project Economy—embracing work as a “portfolio of projects.”
Too many companies cling to old-fashioned talent systems that favor experience above all else. For 60 percent of organizations, attracting and hiring the next generation of project professionals is not even a priority, according to PMI’s Pulse of the Profession® In-Depth Report: A Case for Diversity. That is a formula for failure.
To better understand how to harness the power and promise of future-focused project professionals, we’ve delved deep into their world. In interviews with 2020's Future 50 and dozens of other seasoned professionals around the globe, new imperatives emerge for every leader and every project. Here are six must-follow rules propelling this youthquake of talent.
1. Ignite a Learning Culture
“A corporate culture of pointing fingers or blaming, the new generation can’t accept that,” says Marzikmal Omar, PMI-RMP, PMP, head of the project management office, Dagang NeXchange Berhad, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “Because they’re implementing new ideas, they know they will make mistakes. So we have to adapt to capitalize on the potential and increase the risk of success while changing the culture to reduce the risk of losing bright young employees.”
That means a shift from applauding perfection to applauding those who are willing to stretch themselves: test a new technology, take a class, volunteer for a project at the outer edge of their expertise.
“The world is changing rapidly—with new technology, tools, challenges and risks popping up all the time,” says Yingjin Liu, PMP, PgMP, PfMP, project manager, DSM, Foshan, China. “Only continuous learning will help us not get lost.”
They expect a culture that cultivates that learning, growth and risk-taking out in the open, not locked away in a classroom or far from senior leadership. To demonstrate confidence in their abilities, for example, Omar will put young team members in a prominent role to carry out key deployment activities. The experience not only allows them to learn, but also to network with senior leadership and even show off a little.
“They want to showcase their skill set, their ideas and to fill a more important role in the organization or the project,” he says.
2. Pick Up the Pace
“The younger generations coming into project management are used to speed,” says Lynn Kenning, PMP, PgMP, senior director of program management, Cogito, Chicago, Illinois, USA. “They’re very quick to adapt and move.”
That’s especially true for career advancement. More than half (57 percent) of Gen Z workers expect to be promoted at least once a year, according to a global survey from The Workforce Institute. And in China, 38 percent of Gen Zers would seek out a promotion within six months of joining a team. Promoting someone every year might seem absurd to the old guard, but there’s an upside to that relentless ambition: sky-high engagement and a powerful work ethic.
On the flip side, companies have to be more amenable to unconventional advancement. “There are a number of roles critical to a project now that either didn’t exist or were very rare 10 years ago,” says Adam Fahrenkopf, technical program manager, Google, Kingston, New York, USA.
Clinging to static career paths could spell doom for a company looking to retain talent and best the competition.
“We might be thinking a developer will be a developer forever. But they might be a developer and then become a business analyst next year,” Omar says. “We cannot be so isolated in terms of the career development path.”
At Ericsson, new trainees spend three to six months in a CEO-led program where they move among different areas of the company to see how each team works. After each rotation, the CEO or senior director meets with the trainees to learn what they liked best and suggest new challenges. Giving young professionals this type of control keeps them from hopping jobs every time the promise of a new offer beckons, says Nelson Rosamilha, PMI-ACP, PMP, regional head of project management, Ericsson, São Paulo, Brazil. Instead, they already know what other areas of the company could offer. It’s a big investment, but it fills the talent pipeline.
“The company believes that they will be the next generation that will rule the company,” Rosamilha says. “So we are forming a new generation of leaders.”
The younger generations coming into project management are used to speed.” —Lynn Kenning, PMP, PgMP, Cogito, Chicago, Illinois, USA
3. Play Well With Others
“The model of a leader behind closed doors who didn’t talk to teams should be abandoned,” says Stella Ioannidou, PMP, IT workforce management unit supervisor, Eurobank, Athens, Greece. “Unless you’re with your teams, communicating, listening and making sure you’re removing impediments out of their way, you’re not going to get far.”
The new generations want their managers to be in their corner—to understand them as individuals and build an environment that allows them to do their best work.
“Some say millennials run the risk of being viewed as more stubborn and at times unmanageable, but on the contrary, they’re people who expect you to acknowledge what matters to them and support them in creating the right conditions for them to thrive,” says Ioannidou.
Gen Zers aren’t messing around: More than a third (37 percent) would never tolerate an unsupportive manager, with that figure jumping to 51 percent in Australia and New Zealand, according to The Workforce Institute. At the same time, 32 percent are motivated to work harder and stay longer at a company if they have a supportive manager.
4. Cultivate Inclusion
Disruptive AI and machine learning might promise to fuel project progress, but it’s the push for inclusion of an array of skills and POVs that will animate those tech advances. “I would expect big-picture thinking, creativity and empathy to play an even bigger role in successful project management,” says Miishe Addy, CEO, Jetstream Africa, Tema, Ghana.
Vihari Kanukollu, CEO, UrbanKisaan, Hyderabad, India, goes so far as to point to empathy as the must-have skill that project managers need to succeed in The Project Economy.
Young project leaders aren’t only requesting a greater emphasis on empathy—they’re demanding it. And they’re hardly alone: Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of millennials say they’d look to leave an organization that doesn’t share key values on diversity and inclusion, according to Deloitte.
In a project environment, greater empathy can start small, says Ioannidou. “Make sure you’re communicating with your people one-on-one and understand where they stand,” she says. “Ask people what fulfills them and encourages them to perform at their best.”
“I would expect big-picture thinking, creativity and empathy to play an even bigger role in successful project management.” —Miishe Addy, Jetstream Africa, Tema, Ghana
5. Lead With Purpose
“Baby boomers are said to be more focused on financial stability and security,” says Ioannidou. “Millennials and the generations after them are more like, ‘What am I doing?’ ‘How does that impact the society?’”
According to a 2019 Deloitte survey, 46 percent of millennials and 47 percent of Gen Zers aspire to make a positive impact on society. And 32 percent of millennials think that business should try to achieve that impact.
No surprise, then, that younger people are less comfortable working for a company that doesn’t share their values, placing a premium on organizations that find a way to deliver financial results and serve the social good. Nearly 40 percent of U.S. millennials said they’ve chosen to work at an organization because of its sustainability measures, according to a Swytch survey.
“They like to have a purpose,” says Rosamilha. “They think that the first priority is purpose, and the second one is the job done.”
6. Iterate Everything
It’s fast become a stereotype, but millennials and Gen Zers crave feedback. With an iterative mindset about everything, they tend to get impatient when there’s no follow-up after a completed task. They see any gap in the feedback loop as a missed opportunity to course-correct and improve work in that moment.
“They need the feedback or they become very anxious,” says Rosamilha. “So you have to keep giving that new challenge and teaching them how to achieve the next level.”
It helps to equip younger people with tools to teach themselves. If you point them to the right materials, “they learn very, very fast,” Rosamilha says.
One of the best ways to learn is through your own mistakes. Younger people aren’t afraid of slipping up, but they don’t want to repeat the past, so they’re especially interested in project data and performance analytics.
“They really want to keep their data,” Omar says. “When they are stuck, they look at the information that they already have so they can make a better decision.”