Gen Z views careers, success, and leadership differently


I learned my biggest lessons in leadership from my daughter Riley, who passed away tragically at the age of nine. Riley was the kindest friend, and she felt the greatest joy from forging connections. She led through kindness and always celebrated her friends’ accomplishments to help them shine. To honor who Riley was and how she lived, my wife Mackenzie and I created Riley’s Way Foundation, which has provided over 3,500 young people across the U.S. with leadership development training that’s rooted in kindness and connection. I’m also the COO of global software investor Insight Partners, and from my work in both worlds with thousands of emerging Gen Z leaders, I’ve learned that investing in young people early with kind leadership works.

A reset in expectations of the workplace

Gen Z is entering the workforce for the first time and bringing a unique perspective on careers and how they define success. There’s a reset in what they want to get out of work and what they look for in their careers. Although salary has traditionally been the most important factor when deciding on a job, Gen Z values it less than every other generation and prioritizes joining an organization that aligns with their values, where they can find community, and that articulates how early-career growth will be supported. They want to work for a company where senior members are willing to show up for and develop younger members of the team. They want to have different options for their career paths and want to know that they are being seen as an individual rather than a cog in the machine.

By instituting a culture that prioritizes teaching, training, and cultivating young talent, and creating a culture of kind leadership and collaboration, the result is increased productivity, more efficient teams, and higher retention.

Creating a culture of kind leadership

Being a kind leader requires authenticity, active listening, and a commitment to the individual and collective growth of your team. A kind leader approaches leadership with the goal of making individuals on the team better. They give hard feedback, but they understand how to get the right messages across to lead to professional growth and how to use difficult moments as teaching opportunities. They consistently show that they’re willing to take as much time as is needed to invest in their young team members.

By demonstrating kind leadership, organizations build a sense of commitment and loyalty among young employees. A 2021 study published by Frontiers in Psychology found that authentic leaders positively increased employees’ performance because they reinforced workers’ connection with their organization. When employees are clear on the organization’s goals, how it’s growing and how they fit into that puzzle, they feel like they are working for something bigger than themselves, which is a massive accelerant in terms of performance and creativity.  

Invest in people

Young people need to be taught and guided to be kind leaders. Cultivating leaders starts by giving young professionals leadership challenges early. Learning comes from watching people who’ve come before you do things, then very quickly being given those opportunities yourself. A kind leader will make sure that the young person on their team is in the meetings every step of the way. A 2022 study published by Behavioral Sciences found that productivity increases when people feel empowered in their own work. Empower your Gen Z team members to feel comfortable to ask questions and do their best work. Invest in young leaders early and give them plenty of opportunities to lead, while providing the support they need to succeed.

Spend time training the people who will guide young people’s careers. Investing in mid- to senior-level folks to be kind leaders is crucial to recruiting and retaining Gen Z talent. It takes a mid-level manager who is humble and confident enough in their own standing to put the young person center stage and lead the opportunity. Managers should be judged not by what they do, but by what their team does. Ensure every person on the team is able to contribute their ideas to create a culture of collaboration and creativity. Coaching and training is an investment, not a penalty.

Building resiliency through kindness

Being a kind leader is providing members of the team with guidance when things don’t go right. Bring people into the room at the moments you feel like the greatest opportunity for growth occurs, even if those moments show that you’re not perfect. In times when I’ve gotten things wrong or handled things in a manner that didn’t match my values, I’ve done my best to rectify the situation, but also use it as a teaching moment for my team. Kind leaders show their team how they got it wrong, what they wish they did, and how they remedied the situation. They outline what they could have done differently as a leader and a few learnings the team can take forward. This helps young people build confidence, resilience, and self-awareness—qualities that are essential for pursuing professional growth throughout their careers.

The most successful organizations don’t just value hiring talented young people, but invest in mentoring and training, provide the skills necessary for them to be successful, reinforce the organization’s cultural values, and promote professional development through kindness and connection.

Ian Sandler is the COO of global software investor Insight Partners. He’s also the founder of Riley’s Way, a foundation that provides leadership training and funding to young founders of social impact organizations.

More Gen Z reading:

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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