Lessons from millennial corporate leaders

In 2013, Time magazine called the millennials the “Me-Me-Me” generation and its cover declared that “millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists.” Not surprisingly, the age group helped make “selfie” into Oxford Dictionaries’ Word-of-the-Year that same year.

During a recent forum organized by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Philippine Stock Exchange, I spoke on the topic of “Millennials and the Future of Corporate Governance.” Reacting to my talk was a panel of millennials who gave me reason to doubt any simplistic characterization of this dominant group in today’s workplace.

I learned three main things by listening to the panel, which was ably moderated by Anna Licaros, country head of regulatory compliance at Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corp. First is that investing in understanding millennials will pay off for business organizations. Secondly, the technology skills of millennials positively affect their views on corporate governance and transparency. Thirdly, millennials intuitively and profoundly understand the social obligations of business.

Hans “Chico” Sy, Jr., vice-president of SM Engineering, Design and Development, explained that millennials tend to be different because they have gone through significant social and cultural shifts beyond the normal generational changes due to amplification of technology. “Millennials are the product of the world and we just have to be more patient and understand exactly what motivates them. The effort paid to this people will pay a lot of dividends in the future.”

The need for managers to better understand and manage millennials is echoed by Espinosa, Ukleja and Rusch, in their book Managing the Millennials: Discover the Core Competencies for Managing Today’s Workforce.

They differentiated two types of managers in terms of their perspectives on dealing with millennials. The effective managers considered dealing with milllennials a personal growth opportunity. The millennials puzzled and frustrated them but they saw the need to improve their management skills. In contrast, the challenged managers emphasized the need for millennials to “grow up and face the real world.” These managers focus on what they see as the weaknesses of their subordinates rather than their own challenge to adapt to the new workforce.

On the technology front, the much touted digital native status of millennials have positive spillovers for good business.

Mariana Zobel-Aboitiz, general manager of Ayala Malls The 30th, explained that greater access to information means “there are no excuses and there’s nowhere to hide.” She believes that the Internet has put healthy pressure on her generation such that the idea of good governance and transparency is more innate among millennials than anyone else.

What struck me most — in a pleasant way — about the panel’s views on business is that they understand that it is not just a profit-seeking endeavor.

Lean Leviste, founder and president of Solar Philippines, argued for the social role of business: “The challenge of our generation is poverty alleviation… we have the unique task of changing the unequal socioeconomic development in our country. Rather than thinking of business as an end in itself, we need to think of [it] as a means to an end — to create this engine that will do social good for the country. This is not limited to CSR or social enterprises. For-profit businesses are the greatest engines for social good in the Philippines.”

Listening to Lean, I had to remind myself that I was hearing business philosophy from a 24-year-old.

Meanwhile, Danel Aboitiz, president and chief operating officer of Oil Business Unit at Aboitiz Power Corp., emphasized that a company’s social license to operate makes good corporate governance imperative. Through this, the company creates long-term value for its various stakeholders with whom it is interdependent.

In a similar vein, Mariana declared that “value creation goes beyond profit realization to how we contribute to society; not just for altruism but also to grow our markets.”

Chico captured the panel’s thinking in a powerful way. Corporate governance is a system that “lifts the weakest position and makes sure that nobody falls behind. For millennials, we don’t have to be told, ‘Hey, look at the environment. Look at your social impact.’ This is something that a lot of millennials take to heart. They want to believe in the company they work for and the cause that they do. It’s a question of ‘how has the business generally improved everyone?’”

After hearing the thoughts of this young panel of corporate leaders, I thought how wonderful it is that they are dedicating their lives of privilege, foreign-education, and tech-savviness to uplifting their country through business. I better understood what Jose Rizal meant when he spoke of the youth as the hope of the fatherland.


Dr. Benito L. Teehankee serves on SharePHIL’s Board of Trustees and is full professor of management and organization at De La Salle University.