Five Things You Need To Know About Leading Generation Z MENA economies are ranked among the world's fastest growing, making the case for attracting, understanding, and retaining young employees even more pressing.

By Osman Sultan

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Call them millennials or Gen Z; with or without the labels, businesses are learning to reflect the needs, habits, and beliefs of young people. After all, this is the generation that will soon dominate the workforce.

And nowhere is the shift more visible than in the demographically young MENA region. Coupled with the fact that in 2022, MENA economies are ranked among the world's fastest growing, making the case for attracting, understanding, and retaining young employees even more pressing.

Taking stock of the 25 years I have spent as an entrepreneur and a CEO, and drawing on my interactions with young talent, and also contrasting today's workplace with that of 25 years ago, these are the main directions I recommend that leaders and organizations in the Middle East explore over the next few years:

1. Tell the world what you stand for– every day

You've heard of storytelling, of always coming back to the "why." The truth is, these aren't fads; here this year, gone the next. They are expressions of the work and youth cultures of the 2020s that are strongly social and values-based. (The biggest companies out there -Google, Meta, Baidu- don't make boxes; they connect people with content and with each other.) Your best job applicants want to see that your business lives and breathes integrity, transparency and sustainability. They want to know that growth and innovation, as well as improvements to the company culture, involve many people- and not just the privileged few in the top-floor office.

Enterprises in the pharma sector, for instance, don't shy away from reminding their workforce, again and again that with every shipment, we improve a patient's health, and a family's wellbeing. Perhaps you are worried about going over the top? Don't be. Today's business culture loves the maverick. It's okay to do things differently– and not only in Silicon Valley. Right from its inception, du, a UAE-based telco that I led, chose the path less trodden. It never sought to be just another carrier. Instead, it blazed its own path of fresh, dynamic customer experience, as well as edgy branding and innovative corporate values.

2. Young employees are your number one client

The days of heads-down work in a cubicle are over. That is the reality, and it has nothing to do with loosening control. The change is driven by customers who demand fast, convenient, smartphone app-powered end-to-end solutions, enriched with a personal touch. Those solutions can only be provided by a workforce that thrives on working across corporate functions, sharing information, asking colleagues for help– and throughout, getting their hands dirty, in the spirit of joyful curiosity, exploration, and discovery.

The 2020s rule of thumb is that it takes happy and engaged employees to produce happy customers. In fact, your employees are a key customer. They deserve so much more than a desk and a laptop. This is why corporations like Marriott and Raiffeisen Bank are designing employee journeys and experiences and rolling out people-first initiatives. After the COVID-19 pandemic, the newfound flexibility and employers' willingness to try new paths and formats is what I like to call the COVID dividend.

The world has changed, boundaries have blurred, and, at times, disappeared. More than anything else, young staff want the opportunity to grow. It may well be that their career trajectory will lead them outside your company– to an ecosystem partner, a regulator, an incubator. They may also be keen to take sideway or diagonal steps in their careers– for example, through an overseas posting. As an employer, you need to embrace and anticipate these trends, instead of fighting them.

Related: Power With Purpose: The Four Pillars Of Leadership

3. Don't preach. Empower– tangibly, visibly, practically

Much has been said about Gen Z as the first generation of true digital natives– people who never experienced life without internet connectivity and data-powered gadgets. What is important for employers to distinguish is that digital means more than moving things online- just like new ways of working aren't just about work from home.

As powerful and omnipresent as technology has become, it is first and foremost a platform, a conduit to doing things better, faster, with sharper feedback. What you need to build on top of this platform is a culture of peer learning, collaboration, and experimentation. At the Lamborghini factory near Bologna, Italy, young engineers sometimes relax by competing with each other in virtual racing. Is it all fun and games? No– it's also a smart way to improve their collaboration skills, observe new behaviors, and feed off the raw energy and insight of their peers in the room.

Similarly, crowdsourcing, hackathons, and other tech-enabled events cost virtually nothing to set up and organize. Yet they can revolutionize the way your workforce reaches out to other divisions and markets, rapidly pools their expertise, and solves real-world problems your company is facing. Need to learn the ropes first, or pick up a bit of inspiration? Not to worry: in business hubs like Dubai, hackathon sessions are in progress round the clock– focusing on everything from citizen wellbeing and talent strategies, to health tech and blockchain. There are no two ways about it: in this day and age, executives who don't nudge their workers towards these learning opportunities are not leaders!

Meanwhile, big organizations are increasingly adopting agile ways of working– grouping their staff into squads and tribes, letting teams self-organize and pull work towards themselves, and moving decision-making down towards the customer-facing frontline. Empowerment is the name of the game. The good news is that you don't need to be a giant like ING or Rabobank to dabble in agile processes. Making meetings a brisk, standup affair in front of a whiteboard, allowing product developers to run through sprints and create prototypes at their own pace– all these are great ways to shake things up.

Not only that, your staff will quickly learn that with making their own decisions comes responsibility, with autonomy comes the need to align with others, and freedom works best when it plays out in an agreed framework. Companies including Gucci and Accor Hotels have gone as far as setting up "shadow boards" composed of next-generation workers, distilling the young perspective into their corporate strategy.

4. Collect feedback and make decisions based on data

With old ways ceding ground to new ways just about everywhere, how do you know what is working and what isn't for you and your company? The simple answer is: use data. With the ubiquity of digital, data is the one thing of which there is no shortage. As a matter of fact, its volumes are growing exponentially. Making decisions based on facts and evidence will work wonders for the quality of how your business is run. It will melt away biases and office politics. Not least of all, it will curtail unhealthy meddling by bureaucracy and old boys' networks, desperate to retain their iron grip on how things are done around here.

Gathering people round on Zoom? Make a conscious effort to run quick surveys, and collect on-the-spot feedback. But, in a traditional organization, what is it that typically happens with feedback? That's right: nothing at all. Therefore, as a next step, wherever possible, act on that feedback. If you show your young staff that you have listened to and implemented their ideas, it will earn you loyalty that money can't buy. Even if it boils down to a trivial matter of cutting down on paper towels, or picking the preferable type of coffee machine for the office pantry, the underlying message is paramount. Companies like Cargill have learned to collect employee feedback on a daily basis. It is truly the lifeblood of the modern organization.

5. Your personal leadership is needed– more than ever before

With these dramatic transitions afoot, maybe leadership isn't even needed anymore? Wrong. More than ever, young workers need access to leaders who will coach them, ask questions, and provide a sense of perspective when necessary. To use one example out of many: the 24/7 avalanche of information, the instant and often random access to data points, the hypermediated age we live in, where our attention has become the main currency- what is absent from these trends is healthy filtering; a good old human sense of adequacy and measure.

An act as simple as pointing out, at the right moment, that a [social] medium very often is the message, and that it may be projecting a fantasy which is quite divorced from reality can go a long way to instill confidence and critical judgment in young people. So is explaining that there was once a world and a society that predated the internet, and where humans struggled with similar issues as they do today– personal ambition, work aspirations, fairness, and social acceptance. Granted, some things change explosively, and other things –the underlying, invisible ones– remain the same, through the ages. In many contexts and in the long term, that may well be the most important lesson a leader can share.

Related: A Leadership Roadmap for Sustainability Success

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