The Millennial CEO Embraces A New Approach To Leadership

By Alyssa Wright

According to a study conducted by Pew Research in 2018, there are anywhere between 5 million to 11 million Millennials taking on upper management roles over the next decade. In what has been coined one of the largest leadership transitions in history, many of these Millennials are taking over significant-sized organizations from the Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers who founded them. In doing so, they are changing culture as well as shifting strategy.

For the Oakland-based organization, IGNITE, a notable leadership transition occurred on June 1, 2021. IGNITE’s mission is to create a world where young women own their fair share of political power. The organization has had a profound impact on the political landscape since it was founded by Dr. Anne Moses in 2010, having trained over 20,000 women to run for office in America.

When the time came for Dr. Moses to step down after her decade of leadership, the organization knew the next CEO had to embody the values of IGNITE but also possess enough wit and wisdom to work in the current political landscape. On the path to selecting the best candidate to carry forward IGNITE’s mission, the Board turned to a trusted, longtime staffer, their Chief of Programs, Sara Guillermo to take on the role. She was selected in October of 2020 at the age of 36 to step in as CEO when Dr.Moses would vacate the position in 2021.

Reflecting back to that year of transition, Guillermo believes the succession plan went so well due to the supportive environment cultivated by her predecessor that is still alive in the organization today. “When women enter leadership, it is so important they are supported. I wouldn’t be able to think clearly in the way that I am thinking about things if I wasn’t so supported as the new CEO, not by just my staff but by my entire board, and all of my funders. When we did the transition from Anne to myself I got the time and chance to talk to every single donor. I had a succession planning group on our board that has supported me both in crisis mode and non-crisis mode and everything in between. Then, I had a staff that really, really valued my leadership already. Based on this experience alone, I could probably write a book on positive change management at this point.”

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Inheriting an organization like IGNITE at this time in history is tricky, given many Gen Z’ers have deep concerns about America’s future and democracy overall. As young people are literally reshaping workplace culture and American politics at the same time, discussions about power and leadership are integral to the institutions that support them in finding their voice and driving change in their communities.

Guillermo knows that in her role at IGNITE, these young people are watching her beyond the programs and offerings of the mission. With one-third of the IGNITE staff identifying as Gen Z, her young team is closely watching her management style each day. With that knowledge, Guillermo is motivated to lead daily from her deeply rooted vision of sharing power and creating an intentional, caring culture within IGNITE. “It can be little things. I know I have the power to say ‘there is no meeting on Friday’. What’s changing in leadership is who gets the final say. I wonder sometimes, what if every CEO, in every organization, just gave people individually the power to do their jobs as they see fit?”

To move an organization across generations takes courage in addition to skill. Finding a place to source that bravery on a daily basis is important to Guillermo. For her, it is obvious where that bravery comes from and she reflects on it often. “I come from ridiculously badass women. My grandmother was just ridiculously fierce, like, this woman carried an 8mm in her clutch purse in the Philippines. That’s who she was. She was not afraid of anybody.”

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As a second generation Filipino American, Guillermo’s identity as an immigrant is one that has strongly shaped her leadership style. Her family, who all slowly came over to the United States from 1960 – 1980, serve as constant reminders to do better and be better in the positions she sits. “I mean, my grandmother had to leave her home in the middle of World War II to go and find refuge in a city in the Philippines. Then her husband died and she had to raise 8 children, 7 of them being women, alone. So when I talk about really bad ass women, most of the women in my family immigrated to America and it was not easy. My own mom moved to the United States at 20 shortly after she had me and she worked very hard to prove to everyone that she could raise me. She did very well for herself and I think both inspire me to constantly do better.”

As research continues to show that Millennials like Guillermo are driven to make an impact with their careers, it is likely many of them will end up working at social and political organizations. For those whose history may have been impacted by racism, discrimination and hardship, similar to Guillermo’s family story, it is important to remember self-careGuillermo’s advice? “Surround yourself with as much joy as humanly possible. In our work at IGNITE, we have young people who know trauma, or are experiencing trauma all the time, but I think, how do you give them hope and how do you help them build hope? That’s part of my role as CEO now, too.”

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Guillermo embodies an emerging, empathetic approach to leadership that takes an intentional look at how leaders treat employees’ overall wellbeing as they grow within an organization. Guillermo believes that creating such culture has been and will be her top priority going forward. Her advice to other leaders in this era? “Everyone on your team gets lots of one-on-one time with you. As a CEO, you have to make time for it. Seriously, you do. Make it and connect to your people as often as you can.”


Photo Source: Jenifer Morris/Jenifer Morris Photography

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