The Initiative Generation

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Leadership is a product of personal initiative.  

It is a decision, a thought process, an act of the will, and an expression of identity and personality.

However, for initiative to constitute leadership, it also demands that it produce change, a change that matters, a change that makes a difference, a change that advances toward a goal.

The context for change is almost always some group of people socially connected around an idea that matters to them.

This is a basic understanding of what leadership is becoming in the 21st century. It is different than in the past because it is not based on wealth, social class, educational credentials, national origin, religious preference, geographic location or organizational title, position or rank.  

This new sort of leadership is based on personal initiative, social connection and the desire to make a difference. As a result, it is a kind of leadership that anyone can do.

Therefore, I think it is safe to say that, 

Passive followership is over; Personal initiative for impact is in. 

The implications of this shift are significant. If you are the senior executive leader of an organization, it means that the game of recruiting talent is changing.

This is an ongoing conversation that I'm having with Gretchen Zucker, Executive Director of Ashoka's Youth Venture. Recently, she gave a presentation on Talent for the 21st Century. She, graciously, shared her presentation with me for this blog post.

Gretchen points out that

"8 million jobs have been lost since 2008 in the US; nonetheless, employers are still having difficulty filling jobs with the right talent." 

She quotes Robert Litan of the Kauffman Foundation.

Between 1980 and 2005, virtually all net new jobs created in the U.S.were created by firms that were 5 years old or less. That is about 40 million jobs.

Who is creating these new businesses and the jobs that follow?

People who take initiative, are socially connected, and have a clear purpose that drives their desires to make a difference.  The difference though is in the numbers.

While there may be a long history of small business in the US, entrepreneurism did not become the world changing movement that it is until about 30 years ago. 

This came clearly to mind recently as I sat across a work table in the office of a web designer, colleague and friend who is in his mid-20s. As he took a call and left the room for a moment, the difference hit me that when I was his age in the late 1970s, I did not have a single friend or acquaintance, in my age group, who had started their own business. I know entrepreneurs existed, but I didn't know any. Sitting in my friend's office, I realized that his circle of friends were creating a new culture of entrepreneurism in our community.  

According to Paul Reynolds, entrepreneurship scholar and creator of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor,

"by the time they reach their retirement years, half of all working men in the United States probably have a period of self-employment of one or more years; one in four may have engaged in self-employment for six or more years. Participating in a new business creation is a common activity among U.S. workers over the course of their careers."*

My own path to entrepreneurship began in the mid-1980's with the reading of Peter Drucker's Innovation and Entrepreneurship. My contact with people who had started their own businesses was very small. Not so today.

What this indicates to me is that there is a growing class of initiators whose leadership is changing not only the landscape of business, but of communities and nations worldwide.  

This is the point that Gretchen Zucker presents.

Gretchen's organization, Youth Venture is part of Ashoka, created by Bill Drayton, who coined the term social entrepreneur.  Ashoka and Youth Venture invest in people who are changemakers.  

Ashoka and Youth Venture are shaping an Everyone A Changemaker™ society: every individual will take initiative, develop solutions to social needs and drive positive impact.Every part of society will benefit from having more changemakers, from a company to a school to an entire country.

Ashoka and YV help ensure the success of any entity, region or field by finding the best new ideas, by cultivating the changemaker talent to act on those ideas, and by designing new ways to allow major change to happen.

Ashoka and Youth Venture are helping to nurture the people I describe above. Currently Ashoka is supporting 2,500 Changemakers in 60 countries. So you can see that as this trend continues, it not only changes the world within the proximity of each person who is a changemaker, but it also sets a standard by which their peers begin to understand themselves.  

This standard is appealing because it isn't based on someone else's idea about who they are, but their own. It is out of their passion and commitment that these Changemakers venture forward to change the world within their reach.

This is the world that is coming to schools, congregations, scout troops,  and businesses everywhere.  This is a societal change that is being led by children and young people. This is a grassroots, entrepreneurial movement that begins at an age young enough to care for the needs of the world that they can identify, even at six or eight years old.

Recently I asked Gretchen Zucker to respond to two questions.

What is the single greatest misperception that businesses have about the current generation of young people as employees?

Businesses need to realize that the current generation of young employees (Millennials) is very different from the last generation (GenX) or the generation before that (Baby Boomers).  Times have changed dramatically and Millennials reflect that accelerating change in a new information era.  Millennials are very purpose-driven, tech and information savvy, globally aware, highly engaged (volunteer at twice the rate as their parents), and struggling to come out from under the very broad wings of their parents.

The best thing a manager can do to maximize the productivity of young employees is to encourage and enable them to be changemakers.  They are craving this!  Don’t be threatened.  They will amaze you with their creativity, drive and ability to mobilize teams to get things done.  

I've seen this trend grow over the past twenty years. A tipping point is approaching that will mark a shift that is of historic proportions. This point will be when a critical mass of people worldwide decides that they are going to take personal initiative to make a difference, and do so within a social context of shared responsibility and commitment.  When they do, they will no longer look to institutions to take care of them, as in the past. They will join together to take care of each other and their communities. 

I asked Gretchen, 

"Where do businesses go to find people like Ashoka’s Changemakers?"

Any employer (businesses included) needs to look upstream to figure out how to get far more changemaker talent (entrepreneurial problem-solvers with strong team, leadership and empathy skills), as the proportion of our society who are changemakers today is only 2-3 percent, making the “war for talent” as fierce as it’s ever been.  By enabling and supporting dramatically more people – in particular at a young, formative age – become changemakers through actually experiencing taking initiative to address a social need and leading change. 

Once a young person experiences the power of entrepreneurship, teamwork, empathy and leadership, he/she will forever carry the mindset and skill set with him/her in all aspects of life.  As change accelerates and employers must stay ahead of that change, the single greatest factor of success will be the proportion of their community (staff, stakeholders) who are changemakers.  

So, you can see how monumental is this shift for organizations.

No more passive followers who care little about their company. No more disgruntled employees who only care about how well the company compensates them for the sacrifice of personal time and the personal inconvenience they must go through to be away from the things they do care about. Strangely, it means that owners and managers will have to respond to a higher form of expectation for how their organizations function.

The cause of poor morale in the workplace isn't the external realities that affect the business. Rather, the internal ones. Morale is not some mysterious human social phenomenon, but rather an outcome of organizational design and management. It is an indicator of uncertainty, and produces a passive aggressive followership which is antithetical to the genuine leadership of personal initiative. The talented and self-motivated will leave or force change.

Regardless, organizational leaders have a choice to make. To resist the emergence of a generation of leadership initiators and watch their organizations decline, or to embrace them as a beneficial movement by accommodating their energy, ideas and influence to create new opportunities.

What, then, must a business person do to create an environment that is most conducive to attracting the young men and women that Ashoka and Youth Venture support?

First, envision the possible.

See it in this illustration from Gretchen Zucker.

What if this was your typical employee?

"I saw a problem with our operations and so I got our team together to devise a solution, which we’re now working on implementing with the involvement of other colleagues. I just wanted to make sure with you that I’m moving in the right direction. Is this okay?"

Second, invest in people.

Read my post Return on Initiative: ROI for the 21st Century. You can take a regressive cost/benefit approach to the development of people. It isn't a zero-sum game. Instead, it is a game of survival. Every business' survival is dependent upon creating an environment that accommodates and nurtures the kind of social entrepreneurial initiative that Ashoka and Youth Venture are developing in people worldwide.

This shift changes the talent recruitment game from a race to hire the best credentialed person to the one who has demonstrated that they are a Changemaker.  

Third, understand what motivates people to take initiative to make a difference that matters. 

No one asks people to initiate. It comes from an inner desire to make the world a better place. Ancient philosopher Aristotle saw this motivation as a function of the purpose of every individual. Something inside points to something outside that connects the two together and creates what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia which is happiness or human flourishing.

In simple terms, this desire for happiness, that is a kind of completeness, can be seen in three goals that I observe in people.  These goals are active reflections of their inner purpose. This is what people want from their life and work.

Life that is Personally Meaningful

Relationships that are Socially Fulfilling

Work that Makes a Difference that Matters

The children and young people that come to RandomKid** have these goals, as do those who work with Youth Venture. The people with whom you work, play golf, and share the subway have these goals. Each person's expression of them is unique. Yet, we are the same at a very fundamental level.

We look for social and organizational settings where these goals may be pursued. This is why children and young people are coming to RandomKid.

RandomKid's mission is to provide staff and services to youth, of all backgrounds and abilities, for the development, management and accomplishment of their goals to help others.

We educate, mobilize, unify and empower youth to directly impact local and global needs. By helping kids to become innovative and successful world problem-solvers, we are securing a better fate for our world now, and into the future. We don’t ask you to be a part of us; we become a part of you (emphasis mine).

In this sense, RandomKid provides an organizational structure for these young leaders to take initiative by creating projects that make a difference that matters to them. As Anne Ginther, RandomKid Co-Founder recently commented,

"What is most important to remember is that our mission is to help KIDS help others. It’s about empowering youth to make a difference. It’s about building the change-makers of tomorrow."

Dana Leman, Co-Founder and Executive Vice President tells me that they have learned that kids want ownership, fun and measurable impact from their projects.

There is a parallelism between what I observe in people and what RandomKid has identified in their project leaders.

Personally Meaningful = Ownership

Socially Fulfilling = Fun

Make a Difference that Matters = Measurable Impact

There is no dividing line between the child and the adult in this regard. Their goals are one and the same, just expressed differently.

This is the environment that initiators and Changemakers want. This is not the business environment of the 20th century. It is of the 21st century. 

Dana Leman commented to me recently about what she sees in the kids who take on a RandomKid project. 

Today's kids are not about trying to fit their ideas into standard business models. They are trying to develop business models that fit their ideas. They think about process as an afterthought and tend to engage in a more organic and responsive approach to today's emerging markets.

This is why so many young people in their 20s and 30s are starting their own businesses. Because they don't see themselves fitting in the institutional setting of the last century. And what organizational leaders must understand is that their competition for talent is not within their industry, but rather between the business structures of the past and the future. Either accomodate or become irrelevant is the reality that we face.

I started this post with the following manifesto.

Leadership is a product of personal initiative. 

It is a decision, a thought process, an act of the will, and an expression of identity and personality.

However, for initiative to constitute leadership, it also demands that it produce change, a change that matters, a change that makes a difference, a change the advances toward a goal.

The context for change is almost always some group of people socially connected around an idea that matters to them.

This is the future of leadership. And its future can be seen in the 10 year olds, the 14 year olds, the 18 year olds and the twenty and thirty somethings who are taking initiative to follow their passion to make a difference in the world.

Sixteen year old RandomKid Co-Founder and CEO Talia Leman speaks of her organization's mission as 

Leveraging the power of kids worldwide to drive an economy of positive change.

This is the purpose they share with Ashoka's Changemakers and Youth Venturers. This is the 21st century talent pool that stands apart from the rest. 

If you want these young people to work for you, then you must become like them. You must become an agent of change by encouraging and equipping the people in your business to take initiative to create an environment that can make the difference that matters. 

This may seem to be one of many options for the course of organizations and businesses. I'm convinced that this is the future that is fast approaching.  It isn't an option.  

When Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom in their book The Starfish and the Spider write about "leaderless" organizations, they are advocating for a leader-filled organization.

In a traditional sense, it could be said that organizations like Ashoka, Youth Venture and RandomKid are developing the next generation of organizational leaders.  In reality, these kids are already leading random organizations of social connection that are making a difference in local communities across the globe. The future is now, not tomorrow or next year.

This new future may seem filled with ambiguity and doubt. The reality is that as you accommodate your organizations to the ingenuity and 21st century leadership skills of these young people, a level of impact that your organization has never known will emerge. I'm convince that our best years are ahead of us, and they are going to be fun.  Because the children who are leading us today would not have it any other way. 

The Initiative Generation is here. Welcome them with openness, support their initiatives, and celebrate the difference they are making now.

*Wikipedia: Entrepreneurship-http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entrepreneurship

** Disclaimer: I am the Board Chair of RandomKid.


Values are Signs

Values are like signs pointing to a place.  We know the place exists, though we may never have been there. We know the value exists though we may never have had the experience.

For example, we see a picture of the place in a magazine.  We’ve discovered a place that we want to explore, to visit.  There is something about that place that intrigues us, so we want to go there. That attraction is a sign pointing to possibly undiscovered values that matter to us

Here's a personal story to illustrate what I'm saying.

I first visited Yellowstone National Park in 1977 with a couple guys on a backpacking trip. It was the first Ynp_road_sign_2 time I had ever been trekking in the wilderness. I found Yellowstone a place of rare and exquisite beauty. I’ve been back many times since. It is one of my favorite places.

Embedded in that experience for me was the discovery of something I value. It was being a part of something greater than myself.  This idea of being apart of something greater than myself is a value that I find in all aspects of my life. It is part of the impetus for me to become a consultant. it is what drives my curiosity, my interest in people, and my passion for leadership. As a result, Yellowstone serves as a sign to me of something greater than myself.  And when I'm there, I am more immediately in touch with that value.

I find the same to be true just south in the Grand Tetons. The dramatic presence of these mountains are a sign to me that my place in this world is not central, but integral.   In a few short millions of years, the grandeur of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons came into being. In this setting I find that being a part of something greater than myself gives me meaning and purpose.

In a deep and specific sense, I found myself in these wild places. It wasn’t that I didn’t know who I was, or_18_0140 what I valued. For almost 25 years, my focus had been on leadership and community. Rather, I found direction to these interests.  Because these interests where not the values that mattered to me, but a context for their expression.

A decade ago, while riding horseback in the mountains across the valley from the Tetons, in a place very similar to the picture here, I heard an interior voice tell me, "It is time to stop talking about leadership, and start leading."  I am not one who seeks ecstatic experiences. So, when they occur, I listen.

On horseback that day, I discovered a second value that I did not know I treasured. It is the value of action.  As I have come to learn, to lead is to take personal initiative to act. It is the most fundamental act of leadership. In responding to opportunities to lead, and my life changed, and continues to do so to this day.

Being in places like Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons reinforce in me two values that matter supremely - being involved in something greater than myself and acting in the context of leadership.  Seeing those mountains are a sign to me of what matters to me.

Values are like pictures.  The words represent something meaningful to us.  They conjure up in our minds images of situations that demonstrate the values. Then when we encounter those situations, the memory or appreciation of the values becomes immediately present with us. This is why visual images have such a power over us. For example, if you had only read about the 9/11 attacks, and not seen the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, and then their collapse into rumble, you could pass it off as just a local incident, instead of a world changing one.

Values, the words, as ideas, our experience of them, are like pictures because they serve to signal to us what matters most. Whether it is trust, loyalty, courage or being apart of something greater than yourself, the images that accompany values are signs of what matters to us in life.