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3 ways managing millennials will make you a better leader

6 min read


My son is 21 and in his second year of a summer office internship. He’s working hard, getting good reviews and privately developing a chip on his shoulder because he believes all us old people think millennial workers (roughly ages 18 to 30) are lazy and too full of themselves.

I thought he was just being overly sensitive until I started to see the anti-millennial posts pop up on my feed recently. Really? We’re going to do this again? We’re going to complain about the younger generation the way our parents complained about us? They’re going to take over our jobs and run our world someday. Let’s get on with helping them be effective and — more importantly — allowing them to make us better leaders while they’re at it.

Millennials require us to be vision-driven

Millennials are driven to make an impact. Maybe it’s because so many of their parents told them they could; maybe it’s because they feel like the world after  9/11 and the financial crisis (all they know) is crumbling around them; maybe they’re just not afraid to want to make a difference the way so many of us are and were.

Whatever the reason, this generation performs best when they understand how their efforts further an important purpose. You, as the leader, should be able to help them understand how their job plugs into a higher goal driving your team’s efforts. They don’t seem motivated? Help them relate to the higher purpose. When you can do this well, you’ll find yourself motivating everyone else you work with, too. When that doesn’t motivate them, examine the purpose (tweak if necessary) and the hiring practices that brought in someone so unaligned with it.

Millennials are experts in personal productivity

Having been brought up with all the people and knowledge they could ever possibly need in their pocket or purse, these young adults have no desire to waste energy “going places and doing stuff” that they could handle just as easily where they are. If they can take care of what needs to be done while in bed, standing on a street corner or relaxing on a park bench, they will. This will give them more time to do more stuff — including more work and play that makes a difference (see above).

We old people were brought up to believe work and life were separate; that this required us to be in separate places and with separate people to achieve success separately. Millennials know this isn’t always the case and are mastering the ability to be productive and achieve their goals 24/7 in a blended work life they call “normal.”

To be successful, however, they have to know what success looks like so they can figure out how to achieve it. As a leader you need to be able to communicate it to them qualitatively. “Sitting at your desk from 8-5,” is not a meaningful description of success, so don’t even go there — for anyone.

If they need to produce three sales a week, maintain satisfied client relationships or design a widget by Aug. 1, make this clear and hold them accountable. If they achieve it by coming into the office at weird hours, let them do it, and let everyone else have the same freedom. If success isn’t happening, don’t go straight to blaming your employees’ work ethic, look first at the goals and the culture. Have you created a goal-oriented, success-focused culture or a “face-time” culture? If the latter, start rewarding success instead of face time and watch things shift.

Millennials can mentor you

It’s true that millennials want a lot of feedback. If you’re not used to this, it can be a surprise to find them sitting across your desk asking you to tell them what they did well and could do better. The good news is that because they want it, they usually listen to it and put it into practice!

Use this opportunity for ongoing coaching leadership. They don’t want you to wait for the annual review to help them improve, so don’t wait! Small daily investments will help them become more successful more quickly, which is what you both want.

At least as importantly, many younger workers have ideas that they’d like to contribute. Sure, some of them will be off-point, but they bring an important perspective that’s a good indicator of what your other employees and many customers may be thinking. Listen. Let them mentor you and enlighten you about what matters outside your sphere. You can cut through the BS a lot of older workers will toss up to try to obfuscate what’s really going on by sitting with a millennial and really listening.

One final comment. I sometimes find my little unhelpful voice saying, “But they haven’t paid their dues!” when a millennial is talking about their hopes and dreams as though they can actually achieve them before they’re 40. If you experience this little twinge of bitterness, let it be an opportunity for you to practice graciousness and compassion. Know that they will have to pay dues, even if they look a little different than the ones you paid. That’s called “the maturing process,” and we all go through it. If they’re successful and start a little further down the track than you did at 35 or 40, be happy for them and wish them even more success when they get to be your age. That’s how our world gets better. The children make it so.

There are many more benefits the millennial generation brings to the workplace. Join a video panel of millennials and organizational development thought leaders to explore some of these themes on July 16. Register here (recording available).

Dana Theus is president and CEO of InPower Consulting, reframing leadership to integrate the emotional intelligence lessons learned from working with women leaders. Theus is also a personal brand coach and a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. Follow her on Twitter at @DanaTheus and on LinkedIn.