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Dealing with digital natives: The wasabi-formula to spice-up your leadership style


Last year, I had the opportunity to meet one of the rising stars in financial trading for lunch. He was in his mid-twenties, one who Marc Prensky (1) would call a digital native. We had a very interesting conversation and he went back to his trading desk saying “I have a great job, I am not working, I am gaming the whole day”. I was very surprised by his statement, maybe even a bit shocked, and it made me think deeply about how I would lead someone like him. My reflections over the next 12 months included deep dives with start-ups, coaching and mentoring sessions with young employees and a lot of reading. As a digital immigrant, I plunged into the overwhelming richness of studies and articles about Generation Y, millennials, in short, the digital natives. It is worth mentioning here that the stand out author amongst the constellation of numerous publications on this subject was certainly Bruce Tulgan (2) who I had the opportunity to meet with at Yale this June. As I gathered a host of insights and learnings through this journey, I was confronted with a challenge. How do I walk my leadership team through the same journey and help them become more effective leaders of digital natives? How do I encapsulate all my learning in a crisp and practical manner that would not only provoke their own thought processes but also set the wheels of action into motion? After a period of incubation, it was at a Sushi-bar eventually, where the WASABI Formula was born, one that was designed to be both fresh and pragmatic, one where the form and the content had to come together in a magical orchestration.

The WASABI-Formula

The WASABI-Formula is a pragmatic, easy-to-remember set of principles, a kind of “guide” you can use in your daily life to spice-up your leadership style while dealing with digital natives. But watch your step! The WASABI-Formula aims at making you think. It is not a complete “recipe” and surely not a ready reckoner for all the answers you may be seeking.

WASABI also requires discretion in its application, as there is no such thing as a “typical” digital native (3). You need to consider cultural differences as well as the disparities in the maturity levels of different markets. The WASABI-Formula consists of 6 elements that will help you become more impactful in working with and leading digital natives.

Work-Life Flexibility

There should be no confusion about the fusion of work and private life amongst digital natives – one that has been enabled by mobile information and communication technologies. Digital natives are increasingly comfortable, blurring the line between work and home as Laura Vanderkam wrote in Fortune (4). Every digital native I spoke with expressed the desire and often the basic need for more “Work-Life Flexibility”. This could be for instance, to pursue higher education, to travel and explore newer corners of our world or for life stage events. Work-Life flexibility is now virtually a precondition for digital natives to join or remain with a company (5). As a leader, that leaves you with the challenge of creating and providing an environment and culture where flexibility is not just grudgingly allowed but actively supported by transparent HR policies and one’s leadership style. It may be critical to harness the power of insights, experience, and analytics to help companies attract and retain the best talent among this workforce. Most importantly, “Work-Life Flexibility” will contribute to greater stability in your workforce.

Access to the Flow

Do digital natives and the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (535 –475 B.C.E) have something in common? If Heraclitus could visit our times, he would surely break into a smile seeing the resonance of his idea of “panta rhei” (translated: “Everything flows”) with the world view of digital natives. If “Work-Life Flexibility” is very important to digital natives, then “Access to the Flow” is absolutely critical. Whether this has to do with their inherent nature, the education, or their environmental conditioning, digital natives want access to the flow everywhere and at all times. This would mean access to the flow of information and knowledge, the flow of evolving technologies, access to all people in the company, access to available resources and access to deserved recognition and reward. But this is easier said than done.

You as a leader are confronted by existing hierarchies, privileges that have progressively grown over time, authorization guidelines and the need to respect legal restrictions like data security, privacy and compliance regulations (6). Despite all these constraints, you need to evolve your business and IT architecture to include digital natives while keeping aspects like legal restrictions sacrosanct. You need to figure out ways and means to include them into the flow and foster a culture of sharing – something that is in in line with the larger mega trend of a sharing economy and in the process to create economic value as well. Alternatively, one could think: If you provide “Access to the Flow” then you would end up not blocking the chain as well.

Space for Collaboration

Did you recently go through an experience of your mail server or smartphone not working properly? You found yourself stranded in front of your inbox, cut you off from the flow and wondering what to do next. Collaborative solutions are key to the daily work-life of most people, if anything, they are even more embedded in the habits of digital natives. In addition, collaboration does not mean providing virtual collaboration solutions to your people alone, but also designing physical space for collaboration so that everyone in the team has access to the flow at their fingertips.

The proverbial ‘bricks and clicks’ get harmonized. It is the conscious design of these virtual and physical environments that allows for greater sharing, creativity, productivity and fun as well. It may also involve the co-creation of these environments along with the digital natives. Most importantly, you must go beyond the tools of the last millennium like the colorful Post-its to such platforms including various social media for this to be authentic and credible. Not to mention your own personal office space and your style of management.

All-Generations Intelligence

We all are part of a multi-generation workforce and could experience up to five different generations at the same time, in today’s workplace (7). How does one manage this incredible diversity? A leader needs an “All-Generations Intelligence” that enables her or him to understand the uniqueness of every generation and use these insights to orchestrate solutions around such diversity, thereby realizing their full potential. Today, we find digital natives not just as part of the workforce (8), but as customers (9), partners and even as prosumers. It is therefore imperative to understand their DNA – what I call as the Digital Natives’ Attributes that will explain their behavior across these varied roles. As a leader, you have a responsibility not only to increase the empathy of all non-digital natives to the DNAs, but also create a culture for reciprocity, something that that digital natives understand. Bruce Tulgan provides guidance on how to build such fundamental social skills in his recent book “Bridging the soft Skill Gap: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent” (10).

Business Strategy Engagement & Entrepreneurship

The four previous elements focused on creating a stimulating environment for digital natives and integrating digital natives into the multi-generation workforce. But what do you expect in return? You want results; results that come from a powerful business strategy. The art of leadership is to understand ways and means of engaging digital natives into the business strategy. Huawei did a great job of this through their “Connecting with Digital Natives” approach and sharing their win-win ambitions in an engaging way (11). They were able to get digital natives to powerfully participate in the purpose of their company. How can your company consciously build the future with digital natives for digital natives? Have you invited digital natives in shaping such a strategy?

Should we try and go beyond all of this while leading digital natives? We know of the creativity, energy and impact that start-ups or serial entrepreneurs have in abundance. Unfortunately, these talents are not working for you. They are entrepreneurs and not intrapreneurs. If you are able to create a conducive environment outlined in the first four elements, then I invite you to experiment with the opportunity of creating serial intrapreneurs within your company. You could create special intrapreneurial career paths and groom millennials to be future leaders. You could not only strengthen your in-house workforce but also become more attractive as an employer brand. This would be a great way to leverage the full potential of the digital natives in your company.

One could even argue in favor of a new diversity requirement in the corporate boardroom - a mandate to have at least one digital native in your top team. This could be a strong symbol from just leading digital natives to leading ‘with’ digital natives.

Inspirational Leadership

Imagine that you have made great progress in elements 1.-5. You have a motivated multi-generational workforce, digital natives are making a difference and your business strategy is yielding positive results. Would all of this be possible without inspirational leadership? I don’t think so. Inspirational leadership is the magic “spice” that unites all other flavors (or elements) in the Wasabi-Formula creating a menu few can resist. Relating work to a larger purpose is also critical to digital natives in any case. Inspiration comes from the Latin “inspirare” which means to inhale, to breathe in. And you can only exhale what you inhale. That fortuitously dovetails into my final conclusion.


If you inhale the scents of Work-Life Flexibility, Access to the Flow, Space for Collaboration, All-Generations Intelligence, Business Strategy Engagement & Entrepreneurship and season this to taste with Inspirational Leadership, then what you exhale will not just be hot air, but oxygen for a future with digital natives. I hope that the scents in the WASABI-Formula make sense and cents to you and suit your taste. I hope that I have given you some food for thought on leading digital natives. On my part, I am very hungry now. I am looking forward hearing from you on your experiences and hopefully we will meet at a Sushi-Bar soon.



2. You find more about the publications of Bruce Tulgan on

3. Read about distinct segments of digital natives e.g. under

4. Laura Vanderkam, March 6th, 2015 on

5. Akane Otani, May 5th, 2015 on

6. Example: The European Union did release a new regulation called GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) on the protection of natural persons with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data. The new rules will apply as of May 2018 (

7. Barclays commissioned Dr. Paul Redmond, a leading expert on generational theory from the University of Liverpool, to conduct both quantitative and qualitative research to uncover the financial aspirations, concerns and priorities of today’s workforce. Read more under:

8. Read e.g. Harvard Business Review:

9. Read e.g.

10. Bruce Tulgan, Sept. 2015,

11. Visit Huawei’s website to read about their “Connecting with Digital Natives” approach: