Engaging the next generation of Gen Z leaders in APAC
As the first digitally native generation enters the workforce, how are APAC organizations adapting leadership development and engagement programs?
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Engaging the next generation of Gen Z leaders in APAC
The world’s first digitally native generation is taking their place in the workforce. They differ in expectations, skills and capabilities from generations before—requiring a different approach to leadership development and coaching.
Born between 1997 and 2010, the oldest Generation Z (or Zoomer) is now 26—and by 2025 they’ll make up 25% of APAC’s population. This makes them a valuable talent pipeline for APAC HR teams, as Korn Ferry Senior Principal Jasbir Singh explains.
“Gen Z will be the accelerators of digital transformation, because they think digital first,” he says. “Previous generations translate into digital—‘how do I digitize this process?’ But Gen Z starts with a digital perspective.”
Before joining Korn Ferry, Singh was developing the next generation of leaders in Singapore at the National University of Singapore Centre for Future-ready Graduates. He noticed a rapid increase in the number of organizations signing up for career fairs in February over that time.
“As well as being the most tech-skilled generation, they also represent a vast and fast-growing customer base,” he notes.
The Asian Gen Z profile is relatively large, well-educated and affluent. In ASEAN, where the median age is under 30, tertiary education rates are on par with the OECD average of 50%.
While the number of job descriptions not requiring a four-year degree have increased by 33% between 2021 and 2022 according to LinkedIn, Singh says he’s seeing a shift to ‘degree-plus’ qualifications in APAC.
“In Singapore, as the proportion of degree holders grows, employers are already looking for more than a degree. Depending on their business, they may look for a portfolio that demonstrates proven coding expertise, digital art design, or someone with entrepreneurial experience who can handle the ambiguity of a start up,” he says.
Singapore Management University recently announced it will give graduates a transcript recording their co-curricular activities and related skills, in addition to the traditional academic grade transcript. Internship-as-a-service platforms, including one recently introduced by the National University of Singapore, are also likely to become more prevalent—and these types of credentials will make it easier for the growing number of organizations with a skills-focused recruitment and development strategy.
But once you get this entrepreneurial, digitally-savvy generation on board, how do you make the most of their potential?
Singh says Zoomers have been raised to be more confident and self-directed than any generation before them. “They’ve come of age in an economy where anyone can start a business online or offer their skills on a gig platform. Their high school education was affirmative, rather than corrective—they were taught to self-reflect and apply positive psychology to grow their confidence and esteem. They turn to TikTok for self-help guidance, and YouTube for mind-hacks to be their best.”
Critically, their Generation X parents are more likely to have encouraged them to pursue their dreams than follow the traditional path.
“I think millennials found themselves at a career crossroads, especially in Asia. Baby boomer parents here tend to hold conservative values, and are more concerned with security and safety. They expected their kids to be doctors, lawyers or engineers,” observes Singh. “In contrast, Gen Z is less shackled, perhaps because their parents have benefited from more economic stability in the region.”
This may also be why Zoomers are less anxious and more optimistic about the future than millennials, according to a Korn Ferry global survey.
All these attributes have the potential to make them great leaders in the future. But first, they need to be managed through their early career. Singh says the most important thing leadership development teams can do is empower current leaders and managers to understand the different Zoomer motivations—and adapt their leadership style to suit.
Many leaders assume everyone else has a high achievement motive, like them—and that can be a mistake.
“That may be how high performers used to get promoted, but Gen Zs have different motivations,” Singh adds. “They might prefer autonomy, or to work collaboratively, rather than competing for a corner office. And working with purpose might matter more to some of them, than working for benefits.”
More than ever, one-sized leadership will not fit all.
These Gen Z motivations will still produce results—if Gen Z is allowed to co-create outcomes. If they are simply being directed to tasks, they may feel controlled, which stifles motivation. To this generation, a coaching style of leadership can be more effective than a directive or pace-setting approach.
The recent acceleration of change has led to an increased prevalence of pace-setting leadership in Asia—a goal-oriented approach where leaders set the example to drive performance and progress. But Singh warns it can be alienating for a self-directed person. “It can make them feel like a cog in a machine, or lead to burnout or attrition.”
A coaching leadership style builds long term capability by understanding individual strengths, weaknesses and aspirations. By asking questions and using active listening, delegation is more effective – and it meets the Zoomer’s need for frequent and personalized feedback.
“It sometimes surprises people to realize how practical Gen Z is. They appreciate opportunities, and they want to grow and get better,” notes Singh.
It’s clear Zoomers are stimulated by a very different kind of work environment—one that allows them to be their authentic selves, where they can feel a sense of belonging.
They also believe in their ability to positively influence their work—if not the world. For example, an overwhelming 98% of Indonesian Gen Zs told a recent McCann survey that they have a responsibility to make a positive contribution to their community.
By encouraging cross-generational collaboration, mentoring and training, you can tap into that purpose-led motivation, and meet Gen Z’s baseline expectations for diversity and inclusion.
Singh suggests leadership development programs will increasingly need to be challenging, emotive and experiential.
“They don’t want another university lecture—they’re done with that part of their lives. Traditional executive education won’t work, nor will throwing an eLearning series at them. They will direct themselves to the content they want on YouTube or Coursera anyway,” he says.
Instead, he suggests organizations should create a community of motivated, diverse colleagues on a multi-faceted development journey. Mix experiential workshops with high visibility projects that can make a real difference to the company, along with coaching to integrate and consolidate their learning.
“It has to be practical, it should confront and engage their emotions, and be feedback rich,” he says.
This can also improve retention rates. Singh says many organizations attract Gen Z with the promise of Management Associate Programs with multiple rotations, only to see a spike in attrition soon after the 18-24 month rotation cycle concludes.
While attrition is a natural part of the modern workforce, creating the right opportunities for learning, challenge and impact will keep your most talented Gen Zs motivated beyond those foundational years. “Some multinationals we work with offer Gen Zs exciting overseas stints as a reward for performance and longevity. Others have placed Gen Zs at the heart of their organizational excellence and digital transformation initiatives,” he says.
It may take a culture shift to adapt leadership styles, development programs and engagement initiatives to meet the needs of this next generation of leaders. But given the potential long-term value of your youngest hires for your organization’s future, it will be worth it.