What leaders can do when generation “Z” enters the workforce?

I have been privileged to be a leader in several organizations, in foreign countries and cultures. In the beginning I was curious about culture and ways of working in diverse settings, this was constant exploration for understanding and helping me to guide complex projects or challenging organizational situations.

Lately I have been intrigued by the fast pace of technology that we embrace today and the younger generations who are keen to explore its boundaries.

To discuss and set some common ground we have had a habit of trying to tie generations to certain technological advances or big transformational events in society. In popular research terms such as pre-“X”, “X”, “Y” and “Z” are frequently used to mark the start and transformation of a generation. The year of birth is not the significant factor in discussing generations, in work life context we are more thinking of when the workforce is entered. This happens typically in a transformational and mind shaping age of late teens to early 20s.

The “X” where I seem to belong is a group born late 1960s to end 1970s and started the work life in late 1980s – 90s.  The ”Y” generation followed on, coming about in the 1980s to the 90s and hitting the workforce in the new millennium. Hence these are often referred to as the millennials. Recently there has been a certain buzz as a new generation enters the work environment. They have been born and grown up with Internet and streaming services – technology is not the subject itself but it is a means to communicate, create and explore. The generation now entering work life is referred to as generation ”Z”, as a logical follow on to “X” and “Y”.

One thought about the workforce generations today is that we have now four workforce generations with different experiences using all the same technology and to a certain extent the ways of working. Let’s stop here for a moment.

What does this implicate for leaders in this environment. Whereas the pre-“X” and “X” generation seemed to adhere to authority but also advancement and positioning the ”Y” seem to be more technology focused in their being, certainly fast adopting new advances.

As for the new ”Z” generation we have yet little research to look at. One thing that seem to emerge beyond the natural use of technology in all tasks is a certain questioning style. This is not in the sense of questioning “why” but rather “how”. This emerges as quest to find out the values of a workplace and how the work fits to own ideas of belonging. There seems to be a need to have colleagues and buddies nearby and connected.

With this little background one wonders how to lead in such a vast scenery of backgrounds, uses and sources of technology and information.

What came clear to me was that the authoritative and more control and command routed styles have no place with the “Z” generation. What seemed to work was a more coaching approach where focus was more on how the individual can develop and what experiences could lead to that. This dawned on me when I was reading CV’s of applicants and I noted that the younger the applicant the more non-linear the CV’s become. I found it more interesting to read about a 6 month start up in Shanghai or a volunteer role in a food drive in Africa. What I mean with non-linear is that the high school-university-first job-second job was more broken by several experiences that seemed at first not linked but then later when I met the candidate I realized the purpose and why the experiences had been important. There seems to be a desire to define oneself through these experiences. It is a series of experiences that are defining how and what the “Z” generation will lead in the future.

It is up to leaders of organizations to realize and brace for a leadership style where coaches and mentors have a central role. As a coach you can give guidance and support on how to gain experiences for growth, environments that inspire and work projects that give meaning. The mentoring role is a good way of being a sounding board and sprinkling with insights and wisdom. Could it be that a” Great Place to Work” is becoming more diverse in yet another dimension?


Dan Andersson

Dan Andersson is an Executive Director with EY and heads the restructuring and turnaround practice in Helsinki. He joined the firm in 2016 with over 10 years of experience as restructuring professional and CRO. Andersson has over 20 years of senior management experience, of which over 10  years in restructuring, change management,  business strategy, operational improvement and advisory services in international jurisdictions​.