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Let’s Take the Mystery Out of Managing Millennials

Evan Hackel

I’m an executive who was born before 1980. Are you too? If so, I believe we have something in common . . .

We worry about supervising millennial workers

Some managers our age are even scared to work with millennials. We don’t need to be. In my experience, the key to leading millennials is to understand and embrace their millennialism and not be afraid of them and who they are.

Just to be clear, let’s define our terms. The so-called millennial generation (also called “Generation Y”) includes people born between 1980 and 1998. For this article, however, I would like to focus on younger working millennials – those born between about 1990 and 1995. Chances are they are the group that is causing you, as a leader, to feel the most uncertainty. Millennials born between those years could be the younger workers who might be applying for their first “real” post-college jobs with your organization right now. Others could be younger professionals who you have hired over the last few years – the young and fresh-faced workers who are just starting their careers.

Although generalizations about any cohort tend to be flawed, here are some attitudes that tend to be shared by a significant number of members of this cohort.

  • A love of technology – If you lead a company that employs millennials, you have noticed that they tend to access information and communicate with each other (and do other things that you do not quite understand) on their smartphones and tablets. When you watch them when they are taking breaks or having lunch or walking across your parking lot toward their cars, you’ve noticed that they spend a lot of time using their smartphones, and perhaps that puzzles you.
  • An entrepreneurial mindset – Many want to stake out a business identity and space for themselves, even in larger companies. For some leaders, that creates the impression that they are not team players in the traditional sense. But I do not think that is the case.
  • A love of career mobility – Your assumption that millennials are job-hoppers could be correct. Many do not hesitate to change jobs as a way to achieve the personal goals and success they are looking for. But in my experience, many millennials can be loyal and long-lasting employees, provided that your organization offers them appropriate opportunities to gain recognition, “own their work,” and advance.
  • Risk tolerance – Many are self-confident, happy to take risks, and willing to help their employers take chances too. This characteristic can cause misunderstanding – and even friction – with more mature leaders.
  • Social consciousness and openness – These are outlooks that all leaders would do well to embrace. Many millennials welcome being part of diverse workforces. Furthermore, they are more welcoming of alternative lifestyles than preceding generations were. They also tend to be compassionate and respond positively to working for companies that embrace and support social causes and “do good in the world.”

One Big Misconception about Millennials

Many managers in my age bracket have told me that millennials “expect to get promoted for doing nothing.” I think that those managers think that because millennials are ambitious – but ambition and laziness are poles apart. Millennials do want to move ahead quickly, but that doesn’t mean that they avoid working hard.

People in my age group often expected to advance our careers by “moving up through the ranks.” Millennials, in contrast, expect to move ahead more quickly. Their heroes are people like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who achieved success early. And because millennials are so eager to move their careers forward, one key to managing them is to explain very clearly what they need to do in order to get to the next level in your organization. Earlier in our careers, people like me who are older than millennials somehow learned to never push our superiors to tell us what we needed to do to get promoted. We tended to play by the rules, work hard, keep kind of quiet, and get singled out for promotion thanks to some kind of process that was going on behind closed doors.

You have to open up those doors when you’re leading millennials, because success in managing them comes when we set goals for them with great clarity in your organization.

Processes and practices like these work well:

  • Talk openly and specifically about what represents accomplishment in your organization. You should do this during job reviews, but also start earlier, when you are hiring millennials. In interviews, you can explain who you are, what you are trying to accomplish as a company, and explain the role that they can play.
  • Offer autonomy and opportunities for intrapreneurship. Millennials can be good team players, yet they also expect to “make their mark” by taking ownership and achieving personal successes.
  • Overcome organizational structures that limit individual initiative. Ambitious millennials feel stifled by hierarchical structures in which they can only communicate their ideas and be recognized by their immediate supervisors. It has been my experience that company-wide meetings where people from all levels contribute ideas that are given equal consideration can be a motivator for millennial and younger workers.
  • Deliver an outstanding training program. This is critically important. Training helps millennials discover a way to grow and achieve their goals more easily in your organization.
  • Engage millennials in conversation about the future of the company. When they feel that their voices and ideas been heard, they will become much stronger team players. They will provide valuable insights as well.

In summary . . .

All leaders pride themselves on managing change and building legacies that will endure well into the future. I believe that one of the clearest paths to reaching those goals is to welcome, embrace and cultivate millennial workers, who will become your organization in the years to come. I hope you will agree.

For the Love of Coaching with Jennifer Powers

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