Successful Leadership In An Era Of The Millennial Workforce

Building Teams, Managing Millennials – recognising the lessons afforded by Southgate and his team

I’m certain Gareth Southgate must have paid a visit to Silicon Roundabout as part of his pre-World cup preparations with the England team. He’s clearly been exposed at some point to the modern approach that start-ups take towards building teams and creating a strong culture with a new breed of talented individuals.

Southgate’s skilful management of a new generation of English footballing talent has been taken straight from Shoreditch, not the football pitch. Just how do you bring together a new breed of highly paid talent, aware of the value they hold to any prospective employer, to function as a team? How do you help them overcome the doubters and the critics, who say it can’t be done, setting challenging goals (sorry, last footballing pun), while surviving from one (funding) round to the next?

While the World Cup 2018 in Russia has been a dramatic and entertaining spectacle on the pitch, the real disruption has taken place off it. With 3-5-2 formations, wingbacks and the pivot midfielder considered the footballing revolutions, the true innovation has taken place behind the scenes in the team management and handling of the players. There is a lesson here for any corporate or business.

The collective over the individual

Gareth Southgate has rightly earned praise from many corners for his management style. He’s managed to galvanise a team and a country, creating a positive energy around the England football team that has been absent for too long. Southgate rebuilt the culture of the England team that had languished without a clear identity.

It didn’t happen overnight. No doubt it was premeditated and deliberately conceived as part of his master plan to manage his new breed of millennial players. Arguably he understood that his plan had to start with himself, how he behaved, adapted and changed his style to suit collectivism, not individualism.

Under past England managers – Sven, Capello and even ‘Big Sam’, albeit briefly – the manager took centre stage. They were at the forefront, in control, commanding and dictating the style and ethos of the team. This represents the typical corporate culture that still exists today, the CEO at the top of the organisational hierarchy driving results through process, standardisation and often fear.

Instead, Southgate recognised that success in any context, not just on the pitch, is determined by a shared common purpose, equality and collectivism. And this must start with himself. He wasn’t at the top, he was one of them. He had walked in their shoes, so he understood their challenges. He wasn’t so far removed from the day-to-day on the training ground or the pitch. He cared about each player and the team.

This shift towards collectivism started in International football when Greece pulled off one of the biggest shocks in football history to win the European Championship in 2004. With a band of brothers who both played together and for each other, Greece went from never winning a game at a major tournament to holding the trophy aloft. This continued with Wales in Euro 2014 as they reached the semi-final; their only previous tournament appearance had been the 1958 World Cup. Even though Wales were blessed with a star player in Gareth Bale, he played for the collective. The same goes with Modric for Croatia.

England for too long were dominated by individual stars who played more for themselves than the team. In the corporate environment, they represent the division or business unit directors, who operate in silos, protecting and serving their own interests to further their own careers.

Individual talent rarely succeeds in isolation

Southgate understood that players who are stars at their clubs don’t always star on the pitch for their national team. On this, Stefan Stern, writing in the Guardian, cited the work of Boris Groysberg, a Harvard Business School professor, who studied the performance of more than 1,000 “star” Wall Street financial analysts over an eight-year period.

His research, published in his book “Chasing Stars – The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance”, revealed that individual talent rarely succeeds in isolation, but is a result of the teams and networks they were part of at their original place of work. Transplant them into a new workplace, with a different culture, and their stars often don’t shine as brightly.

Southgate was brave enough to select a squad based on their capability and promise. He recruited not on past performance, but on culture-fit and their willingness to join an organisation with a purpose to reestablish the identity of the England football team. This echoes how start-ups build their teams and is often the opposite of the corporate approach.

This is amplified when recruiting and managing millennial talent. Much has been written about millennials and the stereotypes created as a result of their demands and expectations. The so-called ‘entitled generation’ are emerging as the single largest proportion of the labour force. Organisations are finding it more difficult to attract and retain this talent, given the gaping chasm between their expectations and what legacy organisations can deliver.

It’s why so many eschew the traditional corporate employment route to join start-ups or pursue a more flexible career. Even if they do join a traditional corporate organisation, they soon become frustrated by the norms and structural rigidity of the management style encountered. This is because so many managers today are ill equipped in understanding how to adapt their approach to nurture this new generation of talent.

This is at the core of Southgate’s renaissance of the England team. With one of the youngest squads at the World Cup, with an average age of just 26, Southgate understood that this generation of talent would require a wholly different approach to get the best out of them. The old style of England management, the epitome of command and control under the likes of Capello, just wouldn’t work with this group of players. And it’s that old style which mirrors the leadership in many organisations today, one that risks alienating the new workforce generation.

Rory Smith is the Chief Soccer (sorry, Football) Correspondent for the NY Times. As England progressed to the semi-final of the World Cup, he proclaimed on Radio 5 Live that Gareth Southgate is a very modern manager. His hypothesis is that Gareth Southgate is perfect for this generation of millennial players, that this is a millennial England team who needs to be treated like millennials need to be treated.


So exactly what did Southgate do to nurture this young team of millennials, and how can the corporate workplace learn from his approach?

I like to think Southgate watched Dan Pink’s TED talk on the Puzzle of Motivation or read his book, Drive, to understand why the traditional carrot-and-stick approach to reward and punishment no longer motivates and delivers desired outcomes. This is amplified with the millennial generation. Pink identifies three intrinsic motivators for human behaviour: Autonomy, or the desire to be self-directed; Mastery, the need learn and improve; Purpose, the sense that what we do serves something more meaningful than ourselves.

Weaving these three motivators into the fabric of any team requires a very different approach to leadership and team management than is the norm inside any organisation. It requires leaders to cede control, ensure flexibility and a different level of engagement than the organisational norm. It’s not that most managers aren’t capable, it’s more that they are constrained by the culture and historic ways of working. People also tend to reflect the management style they receive, and the leadership shadow that’s cast upon them. That’s why it has to start at the top.


Millennials are tired of managers who are not leaders. Failures to act, recognise problems, or pay attention to their general welfare, are the important signals for millennials. How the leader takes care of the group, represents the interests of the collective – without self-interest – and acts in a transparent and fair manner, are the characteristics that matter to them. These are the behaviours that Gareth Southgate has exhibited throughout the tournament and have reflected positively on him and his team.

Southgate has been consistent in his leadership style with the team, media and fans. There has been an authenticity to his approach on and off the pitch, and how he has managed his millennial generation of players. Beyond the Unicorn races in the swimming pool and games of Kabaddi during England’s training sessions, he’s developed his millennial leadership according to Pink’s motivational theory. Here’s how and a few examples:

1. Connect to Purpose

Southgate understood that a team of millennials without a purpose is a team without passion. He built a bridge between the role of each individual in the team, not just the players, and their daily activities to provide them with a compelling purpose to motivate them and sustain that motivation.

When the England team and personnel arrived at their headquarters in Repino each member of staff received a handwritten note from Gareth Southgate which was in their room. This was revealed by Jim Lucas, the Senior Social Media Manager at The Football Association, part of the millennial group of staff supporting the team.

It read: “The more I see, the more important it is that when ‘attacking this tournament’ we tell our own story. You’re capturing that brilliantly. Keep doing it and I hope this World Cup brings you unforgettable personal memories. Best wishes, Gareth.”

2. Empower with Autonomy

Southgate was clear that his team should be part of the process, in defining and improving what they do and how they do it. He understood that people support what they help create.

Allowing people to put their fingerprints on the process leads to increased motivation and effort. Often this means stepping back and placing trust in those individuals. That isn’t always the most comfortable place for leaders, but it can reap rewards.

The England media event held at St. Georges Park ahead of the World Cup showcased the faith and trust Southgate afforded to his players. Each player was seated at their own table, unshackled from the overseeing gaze of the PR team watching every word. Journalists and media were allowed unrestricted access to each player, to ask questions ahead of their trip to Russia. It demonstrated equality and unity of the players and was a strong signal of the autonomy Southgate affords to his squad.

3. Coach for Mastery

Southgate recognised that the collective power of the team comes from their adaptability to situations, which requires an ability to learn but also be part of the approach to learning. Millennials like managers to provide feedback about what they’re doing well and constructively framing how they could improve. They want their manager to be a coach and mentor, providing individual guidance rather than merely assigning tasks or responsibilities.

Southgate treated each player as an individual, but, consistently, as equals. No one player got more of his time than any other. Each player had his ‘arm around their shoulder’, each the same one-to-one conversations and open-door policy to address their concerns, and more importantly, were listened to.

At the England camp Southgate used Subbuteo to help the players engage and contribute to the tactics for upcoming games. He realised traditional methods of clips and diagrams were ineffective in engaging his PlayStation generation of players. So, he turned to Subbuteo so that players can touch and move the figures around as they discuss tactical formations.

This turned learning into a two-way conversation, turning what used to be a 20-minute tactics meeting into an engaged and collaborative session that could last up to one hour.

As the former manager of the England Under-21 team, Southgate’s approach recognises the need for constant development of his team and how his role is critical to help to them access it. Millennials are eager for opportunities and want to develop.

Southgate realised success with his band of millennials would require constant adaptation. Inside an organisation, anyone in a leadership position should recognise a need to constantly adapt their style and approach to motivating and engaging employees. This need is amplified with the millennial generation. This means focusing less on managing tasks efficiently and remembering to lead their teams and people.

Learning the lessons from Gareth Southgate and the England squad can help improve buy-in, reduce turnover, increase productivity, and create higher levels of engagement. Millennials will quit their managers not necessarily their jobs.

Successful leadership in an era of the millennial workforce is determined by those who are committed to understanding the ever-changing nature of their business. The key now for Southgate is to continue to adapt as his players continue to develop. He, like any organisational leader, has to lead this generation with intelligence not ignorance.

Those businesses who will succeed with the millennial workforce in the forthcoming decades will be those with management teams intelligent enough to recognise the lessons afforded by Southgate and his team.

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