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May 22, 2018updated 24 May 2018 4:04pm

Age against the machine: meet the ‘woke’ CEOs

By Emelia Hamilton Russell

With image-conscious millennials flooding the workforce, CEOs are having to change. But is it all smoke and mirrors? By Emelia Hamilton-Russell

David Solomon, the recently appointed CEO-elect of Goldman Sachs, is exceptionally conscious of the zeitgeist. Or, as millennials would say, he’s ‘woke’. By day he concerns himself with Goldman’s $1.5 trillion of assets under management, but by night he can be found behind the turntables of Brooklyn nightclubs as his alter ego, DJ D-Sol. Some might say the 56-year-old is showing classic symptoms of a midlife crisis. But Solomon, and, indeed, Goldman, may just be on to something.

It’s predicted that by 2025, millennials will be 75 per cent of the global workforce. ‘We’re reaching a tipping point where if you can’t talk to millennials, you don’t have a company,’ warns Penelope Trunk, an expert in generational differences. ‘Already, from middle management down, the majority of employees are millennials.’

Solomon certainly does a great job of mimicking the millennial cadence: ‘Great talking music biz, leadership and following your passion,’ was his caption to an Instagram snap in October. His lifestyle appeals too. One person commented on another of his Instagram snaps: ‘A banker-slash-DJ. Wow! I’m studying to become one too. :)’ They all are. Millennials are extraordinarily optimistic.

However, much has been written about how millennials – the generation born between 1981 and 1999 – don’t like to work too hard. Or rather, they do like to work hard, but only if they find their work fulfilling, and can broadcast the fact on social media. So it’s no wonder the future CEO of Goldman – rich, powerful and the recipient of online admiration – is idolised by digital natives. The thing that really appeals to Solomon’s millennial fan base, however, is his promise to cut back on unnecessary 14-hour days – presumably so that young analysts have more time, like the man himself, to spin remixes that are ‘so hot my phone just caught fire’ (according to a fan). Or, if that doesn’t appeal, to keep up a rigorous yoga practice, or volunteer, or code apps.

‘David’s always believed that having a wide range of outside interests leads to a balanced life and makes for a better career,’ Jake Siewert, a Goldman spokesman, told the New York Times last year. ‘He’s preached that regularly to younger employees in the firm.’

Dame Helena Morrissey with her family

Dame Helena Morrissey, former CEO of Newton Investment Management, has also come out in full support of the millennial agenda. ‘Why should anyone “lean in” to a system that’s out of date?’ the mother of nine says on the phone as she hops from taxi to coffee shop. ‘We’re embracing remote working, and now, work can be defined more as an activity than a place. People can dip in and out.’

Speaking on a podcast, Solomon stresses the importance of leading by example: ‘People look at the way leaders are living and they say, “Do I want to live like that?” If you want to retain people they have to have a top-quality experience… You need to create an atmosphere where people can work hard but they also have opportunities to have a life.’

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No escape

The strict work-life divide that was common to the baby-boomer generation has been on the wane since the advent of email and smartphones. In a digital age, work is life, and professional identity is entwined with personal brand. Research has shown that young people also want an inclusive, non-hierarchical environment, the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues, and a sense that their work is contributing to the greater good – or at least doing no harm. Socially conscious millennials would rather live in their parents’ garage than be associated with a less than scrupulous corporation. So what can CEOs of big, bad, skyscraper corporations do to make ‘in’ look more attractive than ‘out’?

‘CEOs are the chief storyteller for an organisation, and that means that they have to be completely on top of, and involved in, the discussions on social media, in the capital markets and the news sites,’ says Andrew Grant, founder of the corporate PR firm Tulchan. He notes that authenticity and openness have become major buzzwords in leadership circles: ‘The new CEOs need to be seen, and they need to be seen doing the “right thing”.’

DJ D-Sol aka David Solomon

It’s not just millennial employees that companies have to worry about. As they enter their late thirties and amass capital, older millennials are starting to become serious clients. In a push to attract a younger client base, UBS has launched a new information platform called ‘Unlimited’, whose motto is ‘be curious’. The bank is also upping its commitment to philanthropy and working on the gender pay gap by promoting more female executives into senior management.

And it doesn’t stop there. Robert Kaplan, senior fellow and professor of leadership development at Harvard Business School, believes that business objectives need to realign themselves with these new, societal objectives: ‘In decades past, a CEO’s primary responsibility was to the shareholders. Now CEOs have to be involved in broader issues – they need a diversity agenda, an environmental agenda, and all that. It’s not enough just to make money and avoid illegal activity.’

In her book A Good Time to Be a Girl, Morrissey says the C-suite needs to be like jazz musicians – able to adapt and invent, rather than depend on a pre-established score sheet. She also feels strongly that one of the things holding women back from leadership is the expectation that female leaders should act like honorary men. ‘We need to celebrate the differences,’ she says. ‘My breakthroughs have come when I’ve been encouraged and allowed to bring my whole self. And I do believe that women are, on average, slightly more empathetic and slightly less systematic than men.’

Reminiscing about the old-school leaders she knew as a graduate, Morrissey says that people used to be able to become a CEO simply by putting in the hours and being a solid player: ‘It was all about getting to the next rung of the ladder. Now you need to have some stand-out qualities beyond management. You need to be quite courageous and you need to be willing to change things. You need creativity.’

Walking the walk

This all sounds promising, but sceptics fear it might all be just talk. ‘If millennials want work-life balance, if they want true inclusivity and a collaborative, non-hierarchical workplace, then they’ll have to break out on their own,’ says Trunk. ‘They can’t rely on existing structures to supply it for them.’ Morrissey, too, has reservations. She tells me of a young intern she met at a conference who regularly worked past 1am, and the guy in her office who quit his corporate job because he felt it was incompatible with the rest of his life. ‘There’s a generational gap. The guys who are my age grew up with the mentality that that’s what you did. But now there are forces at work that will enable us to make a big breakthrough – and not just for women, for everyone.’

Morrissey knows from personal experience that you don’t necessarily have to leave the system to beat it. ‘People had assumed that I would be a career woman and that I wouldn’t have children,’ she says, amused. When she was expecting the fourth of her nine children, she realised the traditional breadwinner-homemaker dichotomy wasn’t going to work for her, and flipped it. Her husband, a financial journalist, stayed at home with their brood, and Morrissey went on to oversee assets that rose from £20 billion to £53 billion at Newton. ‘It’s not about squeezing millennials into patterns of work that don’t work for them – they never really worked for anyone,’ she says. ‘I think we’re living in exciting times. Almost a by-product of these bigger changes is that women have more career options and men have more life options.’

So what will the next-generation of CEOs, the ones who are actually millennials, be like?

‘Executives in their late thirties are already more well-rounded and diverse than their predecessors,’ says Grant. ‘They’re much more likely to be engaged in a home life. They’ve all done something pretty amazing to get there – none of them have been handed it, they’ve all got fantastic people skills, and they’re more enquiring and open.’

But don’t be fooled. While some CEOs might have a side-gig as a DJ, or a photographer, or an activist, most of them – the top 2 per cent of the workforce – got there through sheer hard graft, toeing the corporate line, and probably missing bathtime. Millennials who want to reach the C-suite should be prepared to do the same.

Once they get there, they’ll have a whole new, capricious set of problems to contend with. Namely, Generation Z.

This article first appeared in the May/June edition of Spear’s magazine. Buy your copy or subscribe here 

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