How to Lead Millennials? 10 Things to Consider

millennials discussing leadership

Is it really that difficult to lead millennials? Are millennials really lazy, spoiled, and lacking interpersonal skills and ambition? The short answer is no.

The word ‘Millennial’ seems to be often used to classify young professionals born between 1983-1994. Many ‘Baby Boomer’ (1946-1964) and ‘Gen X’ (born 1965-1985) leaders struggle to lead millennials without taking a deeper look at their own leadership strategies.

Millennials are also sometimes called ‘entitled’, ‘job hoppers’, ‘spoiled’, or ‘selfish’. Adding to that, they’re constantly on their phones with their headphones in.

That’s why some people think that millennials should just suck it up and follow the traditional leadership style. It has worked for generations – how hard can it be?

The truth is that each generation brings a different worldview on things, which can create both opportunities and threats for businesses.

Millennials on their phones
An accurate depiction of Millennials?

It’s important to keep in mind that, for example in the US, millennials are now the biggest generation in the workforce. Finding out how to effectively lead millennials should therefore be among the top priorities within any organization, as the number of millennials in the workforce continues to increase.

While Gen Xers and Boomers have around 1-5 jobs in their entire lifetime, 91% of millennials expect to work at one job for less than three years, according to the Future Workplace survey. If you want to keep the millennials in your company for longer than 3 years, then you should really look into how to lead millennials the right way.

Note: By referring to ‘millennials’ I’m categorizing a lot of people into one. I’m aware that millennials are not a fully homogenous population and that different segments of millennials exist.

So, how should you lead millennials? Here are 10 things to consider:

1. Communicate with them

It isn’t only what you say or how you say it. It’s also about what you don’t say. If you’re not pointing out the issues that your team or the entire workplace is facing, and not taking any action to solve them, millennials will most likely leave. If you aren’t willing to hear their opinion and discuss it, they will not be happy.

It’s crucial that you address the challenges in the organization and include your millennial staff in finding solutions. This way, they feel engaged with the company and can be part of enhancing the culture. Meaning and contribution are among the main things millennials look for in their job, and if they can’t find these values, they won’t perform as expected.

If a millennial is having performance issues at work, you as a leader are obliged to make sure he/she understands what’s expected of him/her. Don’t expect that he’ll somehow fix it magically, or that low performance is down to laziness. These issues tend to arise because of poor communication, and therefore it’s important to be extra-clear about your expectations.

Man sitting saying I was trying to communicate without words, but it's not working

This doesn’t only apply to millennials, but be honest and stay clear in your expectations. It is one of the most valuable things a leader can do for their entire company.

2. Give them meaningful work

Everybody wants to do work that matters, and ‘meaningful work’ is defined differently by each generation. The importance of meaningful work should not be overlooked. According to a study conducted by Daena Lee from Pepperdine University, it is amongst the main factors why millennials stay or leave their workplace. Lack of recognition for hard work, or feeling unrecognized by leaders, is a significant hindrance to meaningfulness at work.

So, what is ‘meaningful’ work according to millennials?

  • Work that makes a positive impact on society and the environment
  • Work where innovative ideas, products or services are created
  • Work that improves other people’s lives, and also helps to improve their own career.

Or, in their own words:

I really think the most meaningful job is a job of service. If you can do something that you know in one way or another directly benefits somebody else, it can be very rewarding.

Whereas a person from generation X describes meaningful work a bit differently:

Meaningful work happens when you feel that your work is not all-consuming or that you feel that you can strike a good balance,”

Source: HBR

These quotes illustrate how meaning is defined differently among two generations, who aren’t actually that far apart. Millennials value social responsibility and are loyal to companies that provide true meaning. Work-life balance is self-explanatory for them.

But according to millennials, there’s a gap between what a business should achieve vs where a business’ priorities really are. As illustrated, an impact on society and the environment are far more important than profit for millennials.

Graph showing that there’s a gap between what a business should achieve vs where a business’ priorities really are.

Source: Deloitte.

It’s forgivable that a private business’ main goal is to generate profit. But for millennials, you have to be able to look beyond this, and ask what does your product/service bring to society? How are you making the world a better place?

This is how millennials think when they work in your organization. They value the mission above profit. Therefore, you should clearly state the value your organization brings to society.

3. Set goals and milestones, but don’t micromanage

Too much talking, not enough listening. There are a lot of millennials who see that their leaders aren’t listening to them. Instead, they’re monologuing and micromanaging.

Asking the simple question of “how can I help you?” is a much better way to go, than simply giving a long monologue on how things should be done. We’ll delve deeper into the importance of asking these questions later in the article.

Besides being asked questions, millennials like being held accountable for their actions. They appreciate getting credit for the hard work they’ve done. The keys to a fancy car that they haven’t earned doesn’t make them happy. Millennials want to know the steps they need to take to earn the keys.

However, millennials don’t like being micromanaged (who would?). Having every step they need to take to achieve their goal dictated to them. Mostly, they enjoy the creative process that leads to accomplishing the goal. Once it’s been reached or exceeded, they want the credit for their work.

Help them set SMART goals and help them on their way to achieving them. Hold them accountable for reaching those goals and give them credit when they’ve earned it.

4. To lead millennials better, ask for their feedback

This might be a tough thing for you to do as a leader. But millennials will like you as a leader much more if you ask for their feedback every once in a while. Think of it this way – would you like your leader to ask your opinion about his/her leadership? I’m sure you’d have something to say.

Create a space where they can easily express their honest opinion about leadership in the company. It will make the entire organization more transparent and creates more trust towards all of the leaders of the company.

Showing your vulnerability as a leader is a sign of strength, not of weakness. The same applies to admitting your mistakes.

A good idea is to have one-on-one talks every once in a while, where the leader gives and also seeks feedback from the employee.

Ask them questions, be curious about their life, and show openness. Trust can only form if both sides are open-minded. Dare to ask challenging questions and lead difficult conversations.

5. Give them chances to develop, and invest in them

Millennials are still quite young (in their 20s and 30s) and want to be knowledgeable on various topics. Not only exclusively on their specific area of work. They value knowledge more than a degree. When something resonates with them, they like to take them further and get to know them in more detail. Learning just one thing and doing it for the rest of their life is not something they aim for.

However, millennials are used to receiving new information fast (some call it instant gratification) and in small bites. Therefore, their training courses and workshops need to be highly engaging, fast-paced and digitally accessible. They’d rather not spend two to three hours in a training session made up of PowerPoint slides covered in intense text.

Sponge bob showing 'boring' sign

Along with bite-sized information, millennials like continuous training with short lessons and modules that support reaching small goals fast. This approach provides bursts of motivation that helps them to learn more.

6. Pay them with real money, not with free stuff

Don’t get me wrong – I love free coffee, cool company hoodies, and all the other perks of working for a start-up. But there should be more to it. Even though millennials appreciate flexibility, work-life balance, and meaningful work, they ranked pay as the most important factor in a job.

I can tell you from my own experience that some workplaces tend to think free stuff compensates low salary. If free coffee and snacks would pay the bills (and student loans), millennials would be extremely happy. And probably over-caffeinated, but sadly that’s not the case.

Looney Tunes cat gif of pouring coffee and being over caffeinated

The main reasons millennials cite for leaving their previous workplaces are low salary, not enough clarity around how to move up within the company, and a desire for more responsibility.

According to a Business Insider Study, millennials biggest motivators are career advancement and salary. Therefore, it’s important for the company to have clear rules around compensation and pay increases, and how one can advance his/her career. Snacks, free hoodies and other branded items are nice-to-haves, but millennials would rather have a higher salary than free stuff.

In fact, one of the main reasons why millennials (and Gen Z – the generation after millennials) want to join the ‘gig economy’ is to earn more.

Graph showing that millennials want to join the gig economy to earn more

Source: Deloitte.

7. Allow flexibility

To lead millennials the right way, you need to give them flexibility. Millennials refuse to climb the corporate ladder by working 24/7. They value work-life balance more than the generations before them.

There are approximately 200 million people in the world earning their income by working entirely remotely which affords them an excellent work-life balance. This trend is only growing, and if the nature of the job allows it, millennials at least want the option to work from outside the office.

When millennials were asked what they value at work, besides meaning and pay, they bring out location independence and flexible working hours. It will make them more productive and happier at work. A study conducted by Deloitte on millennials found that flexibility as an employer is a crucial factor in keeping millennials in your company.

Graph showing that flexibility in working practices correlates with loyalty

Source: Deloitte.

8. Don’t be a dictator, be a coach

This relates largely to point no. 3. The phrase “because I said so” will never motivate a millennial to work harder. It probably makes them quit faster.

The time of authoritarian leadership is over, inclusive leadership is the new normal. In fact, millennials even prefer the term “leader” to “boss”. They believe that everyone in the company should be accessible, whether in C-level position or not.

Senator Rick Santorum saying 'I am the Law'
Don’t be that guy

Instead of dictating how things should get done, invest your time in your people and teach them as much as possible. Ask questions that make them think deeply and even feel a little uncomfortable. Growth is only possible outside of their comfort zone.

Good coaches drive performances by being approachable human beings. They get to know their team’s strengths and weaknesses, help them grow, and provide honest feedback.

9. Give away responsibility faster than you’re ready for

Job hopping by millennials is often caused due to the fact that their current job isn’t challenging enough. But also because they can’t utilize their skills to their maximum.

For you as a leader, giving away responsibility can be a hard and uncomfortable task. But acting this way challenges your young team member(s) to grow and use their skills to the maximum. As Craig Groeschel said:

“Most leaders delegate tasks instead of authority. If you delegate tasks, you create followers. If you delegate authority, you create leaders.”

Once you’ve delegated the responsibility, ask them “how can I help you achieve your goal?” By doing that, you’re indicating that you’re invested in helping them evolve and grow. This way you’re creating leaders who aren’t afraid to ask for help, if needed.

10. Go easy on slogans. Instead, improve company culture

As mentioned earlier, millennials need to see that their work is making the world a better place. Hanging slogans saying, “no bullshit”, “think outside the box” or “onwards” to the wall is unlikely to motivate them. They can be nice decorations for your office. But to assume that people will suddenly start thinking outside the box after seeing the slogan isn’t going to work.

The larger question here is the culture of the entire organization. Having “think outside the box” as one of your core ideas is fine when it’s encouraged in reality as well, not only on paper.

If you’re having meetings and you’re always getting the answers you want to hear without any different opinions, then there’s no out of the box thinking whatsoever. Therefore your slogan is pointless.

If your culture is thriving and people really want to come to work, you don’t need huge slogans on your walls. Instead, ask your team whether they know why they’re doing what they’re doing. Make it clear, so that everyone is on the same page, working towards the same goals, and having the same vision.

For millennials to love their job, the culture needs to be healthy, fun and open. In conclusion, it’s important to practice what you preach!

Conclusions:

Millennials are a bit contradictive. They like a fair amount of instruction and independence, but due to their young age, they may lack the experience to act completely independently.

Character from the Simpsons pushing "independent thought alarm" button

The key is to help them find balance between instructing them and letting them handle everything on their own. Millennials don’t want to come to work every day and then just leave at the end of the day. They need to see that they create value every day they work. You can lead millennials better by focusing on the 10 suggestions I mentioned.

Tips and tricks + book and podcast recommendations

If you want to lead millennials the right way, avoid using these terms. And yes, I’ve actually heard them:

  • I think you might not be capable of this/It’s too challenging for you.
  • You don’t have enough experience to lead/participate in this project.
  • Play ping-pong/video games, get a cup of coffee and get over it!
  • I thought all millennials are lazy but look at you!

Book recommendations to lead millennials better:

Lee Caraher – Millennials & Management: The Essential Guide to Making it Work at Work.

Haydn Shaw – Sticking Points: How to Get 4 Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart.

Jamie Notter – When Millennials Take Over: Preparing for the Ridiculously Optimistic Future of Business

Lynne C. Lancaster – The M-factor: How the Millennial Generation is Rocking the Workplace

Podcasts that I recommend which discuss the topic of how to lead millennials:

Paul Angone – The Keys to Leading Millennials.

Ryan Deiss – How to Create Loyalty in Millennials.

Chip Espinoza – How to Lead the Millennials.

Entreleadership podcast – Stuggling to Lead Millennials?

Disclaimer: The writer is a millennial and speaks a lot from her own personal experience.

leading millennials ten things to know

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