How to Find the Millennials Who Will Lead Your Company


Many business leaders are frustrated in their attempts to find Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) who seem to have the potential to lead the company in the years ahead. I’ve got a suggestion: search for those who competed in speech and debate competition in high school (or college) and hire them. As I write this post, I’m sitting here at James Logan High School in Union City, Ca. as a judge, observing the communication skills of students born between 1995 and 1999. They all come dressed like business executives and they have a deep understanding of how to persuade, how to present clearly and how to connect with an audience. It’s impressive.

In my consulting work, I meet many talented managers and leaders who fall short when it comes to speaking and communications skills. Many are good at making Power Point slides, and some are good at presenting facts clearly—even recommendations clearly. But few practice, or are aware of the techniques behind moving the emotions of audiences; whether they be in a meeting, or in an all-hands gathering of hundreds of people. We all know that people spring to action based on emotions, then simply justify it with logic.

The importance of communication skill in the workplace is well-documented. A recent article in Money cites communication as the number one soft skill needed for success in the workplace. A fellow Forbes contributor who wrote, “The 20 People Skills You Need To Succeed At Work” listed communication as #2. This piece titled, “10 Communication Secrets of Great Leaders” by Mike Myatt has over 750,000 views.

Interestingly, just yesterday at an Alliance of Chief Executives round table, I just sat with Derek Fung, COO of TotalPhase, born in the 1980s, a Millennial, and a COO already. Guess what: he competed in speech and debate in high school. I myself competed in speech and debate at the junior high level many years ago, and I credit that with much of my success as a CEO and as a speaker and consultant. Another high school and college speech and debate competitor I know isAndrew Swan, who has become an accomplished trial lawyer leading his own firm. Born in 1983. Another Millennial.

Lessons learned when young last a lifetime.

So how is it that I find myself surrounded by hundreds of future executives and leaders? My son is a speech and debate competitor, so I go along to judge. These competitions are put on in my region by the Golden Gate Speech Association (GGSA) and there are similar associations nationwide. Incredibly dedicated high school teachers volunteer extra time (many weekends) for years on end to make it all happen. In the GGSA, some faces of the teachers that I seem to see at every competition are Michele Lamons, John Propster, Kristin Plant, Dave Matley, Terry Abad, Jon MacMillan, Brandon Spars and Lynette Williamson. They always thank the parents who are judges, but frankly, they deserve all of the thanks for turning our kids into the leaders of tomorrow. Ditto to their peers nationwide.

I’m here with Michele Lamons, who leads the Pinole Valley team and led the parent judges at the state qualifications event Friday.

Midsize companies used to rely on hiring young leaders who had been trained by big corporations. But with entrepreneurship as a much larger, more viable path to start in the workplace, many Millenials haven’t received any such training. Midsized firms must begin to do much more of their own leadership development, but identifying and hiring Millennials who made the choice to develop one of the most important leadership skills while in school is a smart move.

Here is the truth about students who compete in speech and debate. They’ve spent hundreds of hours perfecting their speaking skills. Many have done intensive research to write their speeches. All have endured the pressure that competition brings, and have performed well intellectually under such pressure. They’ve made connections and friendships with other high performing peers. All of these behaviors are excellent predictors of success on any leadership team.

So if you’re struggling to find Millennials you’d trust to lead your company, think about the fact that I’m sitting here surrounded by them. In fact, I welcome any of the students I’ve judged over the past two years to connect with me on Linked In. Those connections will be helpful for my clients beginning around 2018.

Our Dublin High School team of two came home with three trophies. The one on the left is mine, Ben Sher. On the right is Arsal Zaheer.

Be on the lookout for Millennials who have participated in speech and debate training. Hire them and put them on your leadership fast track.

If you’ve been involved in high school speech and debate, or have children that have been involved, please tell us your story as a comment below.