To Attract and Retain Top Gen Z Talent, Managers Need to Be ‘Servant Leaders’

There is a myth that people are either good managers or they are not. That is not true; it is a learned skill.

Leadership is a learned skill. Brooke Lark/Unsplash

There is a fundamental reset underway in what young people want to get out of work and what one looks for in their career. The old mentality of “do the grunt work and climb the proverbial corporate ladder” does not work for Gen Z. As a result, leaders need to operate with kindness, empathy and a willingness to serve others in order to attract and retain top talent.

We are seeing an entirely different approach to careers and workplace culture. Young employees want to join a place where they feel part of something bigger than themselves. These values take precedence over taking the job that offers the most money. Gen Z employees are more inclined to work harder for a leader who treats them with kindness and empathy. In the investment world, compound interest generates exponential growth through continuous reinvestment. Kindness and collaboration, like the compounding effect of return on investment, possess an extraordinary power to amplify impact over time.

Bringing the best out of young employees

Organizations that model kind and empathetic servant leadership are the best at bringing out the best in employees. One of the things I’ve learned very early in my career is that people don’t leave organizations; they leave managers. You can’t have one or two good leaders and expect a great organization. Instead, the culture across the board must prioritize teaching, training, cultivating and promoting great leaders.

Doing this effectively requires providing direct feedback. For example, say, “I see this innate leadership quality lives within you, and I want to see this come out.” It’s direct, strong but constructive feedback that details what’s not working and what will work. At times, there’s a concern about confrontation in workplaces, but this is what employees need.

The second step is engaging in active coaching to cultivate the employee’s leadership skills. When coaching, remove any stigma that implies, “You’re getting a coach because you’re failing.” Instead, say, “You’re getting a coach because we are investing in you. We’re spending the funds and investing in resources to make you your best self.”

Finally, after going through a consistent cycle of providing direct feedback and cultivating leadership growth, the focus becomes promoting the employee when they have modeled a management approach rooted in kindness, growth and a leadership philosophy that relies on serving others.

Building sustainable relationships in workplaces

Fresh graduates often need guidance to navigate the complexities of the professional world. A kind and empathetic leader provides support and valuable insights to help them adapt and grow in their roles. When employees feel seen and heard, they thrive.

As servant leaders, hosting regular office hours and impromptu dinner outings can promote access between senior and junior team members. I model these behaviors regularly in my roles at Insight Partners and Riley’s Way because they go a long way in building sustainable relationships, boosting morale, providing an opportunity to share and exchange ideas, and fostering a sense of belonging and inclusivity.

Leaders who genuinely care about their team members’ well-being and professional growth inspire trust and loyalty. Every year, I give a talk to Insight’s summer interns and new hires where I share leadership tips such as drinking lemon with water instead of alcohol at company events and the value of showing up 15 minutes early at meetings. While they seem simple in concept, these tips are what servant leaders should do—take the time to provide guidance and offer safe spaces for employees to bond, grow, communicate, engage and learn. Having better access to leaders and the ability to turn to them for help can help employees make better decisions and aid in their professional growth.

Learning to be an empathetic leader

There is a myth that people are either good managers or they are not. That is not true; it is a learned skill. The job of a manager is not to take work and pass it down but, rather, to understand how to create a strong team.

Good leaders promote the members of the team and their work when there are successes and take personal responsibility when things go wrong. Kind and empathetic leaders uplift young employees by acknowledging their strengths and encouraging their contributions. At our company, we make it a tradition to consistently recognize team members who exhibit our core values with awards.

A good servant leader also brings the idea generator into meetings regardless of the person’s professional title. This positive reinforcement helps build their confidence and self-esteem, leading to more assertive and successful decision-making. Empathetic leaders create an environment where employees feel comfortable asking questions, seeking help and expressing their ideas.

Cultivating future leaders

As a manager, the more senior you are, the more you will be judged by the performance of your team instead of as an individual. I’ve seen firsthand how empathy allows leaders to understand and appreciate employees’ diverse perspectives, leading to an increase in innovative ideas.

Kind leaders encourage creativity and innovation by creating an environment where ideas can flourish. They acknowledge team members’ individual and collective achievements, celebrating successes and milestones. Recognition can be in verbal praise, written appreciation or tangible rewards. Employees who feel seen, valued, and supported are more likely to be satisfied with their work, engaged in their tasks, and committed to the company’s success. They promote a culture of continuous learning within the organization. They advocate for professional development opportunities and encourage employees to acquire new skills and knowledge. 

Young employees are more likely to stay committed to an organization that values their well-being and provides a positive work environment. This leads to enhanced employee satisfaction and reduces turnover.

I have learned over my 25-year career that leadership rooted in these values is crucial for the growth and success of any industry and any leader. They aid employees’ professional development and contribute to a positive work environment and organizational culture, fostering long-term loyalty, sustainability and commitment.


Ian Sandler is the founder of Riley’s Way Foundation, a nonprofit focused on investing in the next generation of kind leaders, and the managing director and chief operating officer at Insight Partners, a venture capital firm. 

To Attract and Retain Top Gen Z Talent, Managers Need to Be ‘Servant Leaders’