What Does the Next Generation Leader Look Like?

UPDATED: June 18, 2024
PUBLISHED: June 24, 2024
next generation leaders around a table in an office

Next generation leaders are set to shake up the workplace as we know it. Gen Z are more educated, with early benchmarks showing that post-millennials are enrolling in college at a significantly higher rate than millennials did at the same age. They will also comprise 27% of the workforce by 2025, and that number will continue to climb as its members graduate and settle into their careers. But what do members of this generation value, and what will their leadership look like in the workplace?

Next generation leaders are more interested in face-to-face contact than you’d expect

Gen Z grew up with screens. Social media was commonplace by the time they reached their teenage years, and hard-copy encyclopedias were mere curiosities on their parents’ bookshelves. One may assume this means that next generation leaders have a natural proclivity for online working, preferring to operate remotely as many of them did during high school and university when the COVID-19 pandemic required it.

However, despite this familiarity with working digitally, Gen Z craves human contact. BambooHR discovered that only 27% of Gen Zers were interested in full-time remote work, compared to 41% of Baby Boomers. Nearly half of Gen Zers polled believe they will be more productive in an office, with 52% describing interaction with colleagues as a driving factor.

Amber Gerdes, founder and lead strategist of Salt and Light Social Media, describes how her remote Gen Z team members expressed a desire to start working together twice a week since they are all based in Milwaukee. 

Gerdes, a member of Gen Z herself, was surprised at the outcome. “Since doing that, we’ve become so much more productive, our team is bonding, we’re creating better work, we’re collaborating better, and they tell me every week how much they value it. We’re even looking into getting some office space.” 

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Gen Z leaders are prioritizing mental health more

McKinsey & Company’s research indicates that 55% of Gen Zers studied reported having been diagnosed with or having received treatment for mental illness, echoing previous research that showed the importance of addressing the mental health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

McKinsey also found that Gen Z is more likely to report receiving treatment or mental health diagnoses, but they’re also the most likely to report not being able to afford mental health services. Lack of access to affordable mental health services is regarded as a major barrier to their well-being. Companies with robust mental health policies will likely have an easier time attracting Gen Z talent as a result, but next generation leaders are already taking matters into their own hands.

Flexibility and transparency matters

Gerdes worked in corporate before starting her own business, and her previous position allowed for mental health days as a benefit. However, most workers didn’t take them due to the stigma present in company culture. 

“I felt like I couldn’t take one without people worrying about me,” she explains.

Now, in her own business, she makes a point of telling her team when she’s struggling. “It creates transparency for them to do the same when they need extra support. If people are well-rounded, taken care of, feeling their best mentally, physically and spiritually, I think it reflects in the work they do.”

Gerdes also allows her team flexibility in their workday structure. “I need my team to meet their responsibilities, but I don’t care when they do their work. If they want to get it all done in three days and take two days off, go for it.”

Gen Z leader Maya Vertigans, founder of Planner Bee VA Services, does the same with her team. 

“We provide flexibility to the team in their working hours, helping them establish work-life balance,” she says. “I want my team to feel supported, like they can come to me with issues, and I can give them space to learn and grow from mistakes. I try to lead from the front with that, sharing if I’m stressed and building an open culture.” 

Diversity and sustainability aren’t just buzzwords for Gen Z leaders

Next generation leadership has a watchful eye on equity practices. Diversity matters to them, and not just in terms of race and gender. 

Jackie Handy, an inclusion and belonging specialist, says we can expect Gen Z to speak up much more than previous generations. “They will challenge systems, processes and leadership. If something isn’t suiting them, I don’t think they’ll just roll over,” she notes. “Yes, they will speak with their feet, get out of there and find an environment that will value them for who they are and offer the growth pathways they’re looking for… but I don’t think they will go quietly. They’ll speak with their voices as well. Organizations should ignore it at their peril.”

Handy suggests organizations be meaningful in the implementation of diversity, equity and inclusion practices. A poster on social media for Black Lives Matter or an event for International Women’s Day isn’t going to cut it. 

“Inclusive organizations will have policies and processes that serve all representation in their workforce, whether these people are in the company already or not,” Handy says, citing examples like menopause policies, gender transition policies and adoption policies that transcend heteronormativity. “You can’t just run a one-time workshop about unconscious bias and then move along and forget it. You have to work hard day to day, visibly, to represent society across your organization, providing equitable, fair opportunities for everyone to progress in that workforce.”

Social issues and next generation leadership

Sustainability is also a key focus for Gen Z, and they know greenwashing when they see it. For some businesses, like Vertigan’s VA business, sustainability is crucial. “Being ethical and prioritizing people and the planet are our key values,” she says. 

She acknowledges that sustainability sometimes takes unexpected shapes and seldom appears as a company that makes green products. “We offer virtual assistance to sustainable and ethical businesses. They take many forms, but they’re always run by purpose-led people, doing their bit in their own way.”

Deloitte found that Gen Zers need their employers to highlight efforts to be good global citizens, demonstrating a commitment to addressing sustainability, climate change and hunger.

Deloitte also believes it’s worth noting that salary alone is insufficient to lure next generation leaders in. While it’s regarded as the most important factor for them, they seemingly value salary less than previous generations. When presented with the choice between higher pay but a boring job, compared to interesting work that doesn’t pay as well, Gen Z was evenly split.

So, what’s the winning combination? A competitive salary, face-to-face collaboration, prioritization of mental health and visible inclusive policies with a focus on sustainability seem to be good places to start. A clearer picture will continue to develop over the next few years as more Gen Z leaders assume positions of power.

Photo by fizkes/Shutterstock.com

Tayla Blaire

Tayla Blaire is a South African freelance journalist and copy/content writer for business and lifestyle brands. She enjoys helping new writers find their feet in the world of freelancing, thanks to her background in education. Find her atwww.taylablaire.com