How To Lead Millennials - The Comprehensive Guide

How To Lead Millennials

Although millennials have become the most populous demographic in the American workplace, there’s still some uncertainty around how to best leverage their unique skills and characteristics in a professional setting. It’s no secret that millennials were raised differently than any previous generation, but it’s a lesser-known fact that they need to be led differently, too.

Contrary to popular opinion, most millennials are very coachable and willing to learn. They simply need to be taught and led in a manner that they’ll respect and respond to. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the key attributes that make millennial workers different from previous generations, some effective millennial leadership traits, and the importance of preparing the millennial generation to lead the future American workplace.

Needs of the Millennial Workforce

To effectively lead any group of people, you need to understand their priorities, motivations, and overall needs -- and millennials differ significantly from Gen Xers and baby boomers in each of these regards. Let’s talk about a few fundamental differences between millennials and previous generations in the workplace!

1) Feedback

In addition to working closely with their peers, millennials also want to work with their leaders. Millennials are highly opinionated, and they challenge authority more than previous generations did. As a result, they desire more opportunities to interact with upper-management and have their voices heard.

On the flip side, millennials tend to be quite coachable and eager to receive feedback as well. Their engagement flourishes when they receive consistent and constructive feedback from trusted sources.

2) Variety

Millennials are not accustomed to — or accepting of — boredom. They’re incredibly skilled multitaskers that crave constant mental stimulation and variety in their work.

Millennials tend to think one step ahead: “What will I be doing next?” “What should I start when I finish this task?” This has often been seen as a downfall of their generation, but it’s actually a very real skill that can be leveraged. By understanding that millennial workers are more productive when they have variety in their daily tasks, employers are better able to maximize their potential.

3) Work-Life Balance

Millennials seek a much more balanced relationship with their work than previous generations tended to. While baby boomers often attribute this to lack of career motivation, the reality is simply that millennials are equally devoted to their work and their personal well-being.

Whereas baby boomers and Gen Xers felt the pressure to achieve their career goals as quickly as possible (regardless of the mental/physical toll), millennials are less willing to compromise their personal wellness for their professional objectives. They carve out space and time to tend to their families, friends and overall health -- and frankly, this is a very positive quality. In the long run, it’s better for your employees to be happy and healthy than burnt out and overworked.

4) Upward Mobility

While millennials may not be working 24/7 to achieve their career goals, upward mobility is still of utmost importance to them. Millennial workers aren’t so keen to wait several years for a promotion that may never come -- if they feel their progress being stifled, they’re much more inclined than previous generations to jump ship to a new job.

In other words, rather than adhere to traditional guidelines for career development, millennial workers want to see rapid growth. They know there are other options available if they become unhappy with their jobs, and may only accept positions with clearly defined upward mobility in the first place.

5) Purpose

In a recent study, 88% of millennials who said they planned on staying at their current job for five years or more cited their primary reason as “having a sense of purpose.” So, in order to gain the loyalty of their millennial workers, employers must aim to fulfill this need.

One way to go about this is by making sure your millennial workers feel challenged. If their work is too easy, they’ll get bored and lose their sense of purpose and personal growth. Millennials desire to be more than just cogs in a machine -- they need to feel personally challenged to stay happy and motivated.

Effective Millennial Leadership Traits

Now that we’ve gone over the needs of the millennial workforce, let’s talk about how you can effectively address those needs as a leader. Below are five things you can offer your millennial workers to help them feel fulfilled at work, and thereby maximize their potential. Let’s dig in!

1) Structure & Guidance

Most millennials want a workplace with a clear structure, where their goals and responsibilities are defined on a daily basis. This way, they know what is expected of them, and they can work toward a tangible target, which helps increase their engagement further. To millennials, success is accomplishing their goals — and if there are no concrete goals, it can be difficult to gauge that success.

In addition, millennials prefer to receive specific feedback from leadership figures. They like to know where they stand within your organization. If you’re used to the type of leadership that gives employees a lot of independence — in a “just get the job done” kind of way — you may want to shift your perspective.

Millennials want to know exactly what you want them to do, and perhaps give them guidance on how to go about accomplishing those goals as well. Also, the more structured their work life is, the easier it is to plan their busy social lives.

Furthermore, millennials want leaders they can look up to. They want to have successful mentors who they can pattern their own careers after. And guess what? As their leader, that person is you! Make sure to invest enough time into coaching them on a regular basis, and I think you’ll find that this guidance can reap some valuable rewards.

2) Encouragement

When possible, try to keep the tone of your feedback positive. If you give millennials too many criticisms, they start to feel like you’re talking down to them, or needlessly chastising them. Keep in mind that they likely didn’t grow up with as much negative feedback as previous generations did, so in a way they’re still not really used to it. If you want to truly lead millennials, you may need to encourage them to get them to commit.

While not all millennials grew up receiving “participation trophies,” so the cliche goes, I’ve found that most of them certainly do like to have their achievements recognized. Sometimes, the best leadership tactic for millennials is simply to celebrate their successes. After all, no one dislikes being told that they did a good job on an important assignment!

3) Attentiveness

Millennials are not a generation that readily accepts being told what to do without having a chance to speak their minds. Make sure they feel that their input and ideas are welcomed in the workplace, and that you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say. This often means not just listening to them, but taking action to solve any problems they might have.

Everyone wants to feel like their voice is heard. Millennials, however, are used to that being the case. But even if this particular piece of advice might apply to millennials, it’s also not a bad idea in general to sincerely listen to the people you aspire to lead.

4) Opportunities for Growth

I mentioned earlier that millennials enjoy difficult tasks, and I meant it! Millennials don’t like to just coast by, completing the same series of rote tasks day after day. Instead, lead them away from boredom by challenging them at work, with unexpected and maybe even enjoyable assignments.

There are a few ways to accomplish this, of course. One way I always like to frame challenges in the workplace is to focus on what happens next after any given project. By getting people to think about the future, they’re less likely to get bored with what they’re doing right now. And as we discussed, there are few things that irritate millennials more than being bored.

There are limits to everyone’s tolerance of difficult tasks though. Some employees may even wonder why you’re asking them to work on projects that are out of their wheelhouse, so to speak. Never assume that any employee — millennial or not — will automatically know the reasoning behind an assignment that requires them to seek out new skills or knowledge.

Keeping this in mind, make sure your employees always know why it’s necessary to perform stretch assignments. In other words, if you ask them to develop a report or lead a team project that’s outside of their comfort zone, explain to them how you’re hoping to broaden their skill set through this new venture.

Furthermore, by framing these assignments the right way, you can develop employees in ways that prepare them for their own leadership positions. For example, exposing them to the workings of different departments from the one they work in gets them out of their box and into the larger machine that makes up your company.

5) Recognition of Their Unique Skills

Millennials have unique capabilities that a strong leader can cultivate and amplify. While not every millennial exceeds expectations in the same areas, of course, there are a few common points that most of them share. First off, most millennials are quite computer literate, and comfortable with technology on the whole. Seeing as they grew up with this tech in their homes and schools, it’s smart to try to take advantage of these abilities.

This extends a bit outside of the workplace as well. A rather incredible 89% of millennials regularly check their work email accounts after hours — but before we continue, I’d like to stress that this does not mean that you should ever expect them to focus on work outside of their official time on the clock. Still, this is just one of many reasons every employer should invest in a strong digital infrastructure — if they want to knock out some tasks on their own time, they can!

Multitasking is another major strength for most millennials, and another attribute that can pay huge dividends for a strong leader. Most millennials I know are multitasking geniuses with their free time — they can watch a movie on TV, while playing a video game on their smartphone, while carrying on a conversation with a friend, while surfing the internet on their laptop...sure, I might be exaggerating ever so slightly, but I think we all know millennials who fit this description.

Why not adapt this multitasking ability into the workplace? Not only can it be tremendously helpful in the sense that your employees can get more done with their limited time, but it can also help millennials fight off that boredom I keep mentioning. Additionally, by more accurately mirroring the way they spend their free time, you’re actually focusing on (and feeding into) their strengths.

Along those same lines, playing to your employees’ strengths in general will help keep them happy and productive. If you don’t know what a millennial employee excels at, just ask them! I’m sure they’ll be pleased to fill you in. Once you discover how each employee prefers to operate, you can tailor their assignments (and your own expectations) to their abilities.

Incentivizing Conditions for Millennial Workers

In addition to embodying the leadership traits discussed above, there are many other things you can do to create the ideal conditions for your millennial workers. Let’s talk about a few other ways to effectively incentivize your millennial crew!

1) Flexible Scheduling

Millennials aren’t likely to accept working 40 hours per week in a physical office unless they’re given a good reason why they have to be there. As transportation in major cities becomes increasingly expensive, and working remotely becomes increasingly feasible, it’s difficult to justify making all your employees commute to one location every day simply to sit in close proximity to one another.

Frankly, going the traditional office route is incredibly expensive for employers anyway. While employees who work from home at least half the time stand to save between $2,000 and $7,000 per year, their employers will save an average of $11,000 annually (per person)!

Flexible scheduling may take forms other than telecommuting, too. Many employers use a system where employees can start work at any time within a three hour window and leave whenever they’ve completed their required daily hours. Respecting your millennial workers’ vacation time is also essential, as this demographic takes their leisure time very seriously.

All in all, there are tons of ways to demonstrate flexibility to your millennial employees. Be creative and implement solutions that work for your unique team!

2) Teamwork

Millennials have lived their whole lives working in teams. From school projects to team sports, collaborating with other people has been a consistent occurrence for the millennial generation -- so it’s no surprise that most of them prefer a team-oriented approach in the workplace as well.

Previous generations had the tendency to seek independence at work, a trend that reached its peak in the “cubicle wasteland” that dominated American offices in the 1990s. On the contrary, today’s millennial workers prefer to spend their days in collaborative environments bouncing ideas off one another.

Not only do millennials prefer to work in teams, they also tend to be more productive in that environment. There are a couple different things I mean when I refer to teamwork in the workplace, the first of which is encouraging your employees to work together to complete projects.

The other aspect of office teamwork is that of a collaborative workplace, rather than a hierarchical one. While millennials do want a leader to follow, they don’t like being managed. They don’t typically appreciate traditional workplace politics or power plays either.

In general, it’s best to treat all employees as equals, even though they obviously aren’t all equal according to any company structure. Still, as long as you show all your employees the same level of respect, regardless of their position within your company or their relative pay grade, I think you’ll find that the task of leadership becomes much easier!

3) Fun Workplace Atmosphere

I know it’s a cliche to talk about stuff like ping pong tables in the break room increasing employee productivity, but it’s still true. A few years back, authors Scott Christopher and Adrian Gostick wrote a book called “The Levity Effect: Why It Pays to Lighten Up,” which goes into great detail about the power of fun and humor in the workplace.

While we clearly don’t have time to dive into the issue as deeply as Christopher and Gostick did, many of the concepts are relatively simple. The basic point is that if employees are enjoying themselves, they’re apt to work harder and for longer hours. Additionally, they’ll be better equipped to handle a crisis in the workplace, maintaining their composure. When you consider that millennial workers tend to prioritize enjoying themselves at work more than any previous generation, you can see how important simply having fun is becoming for any work environment.

The reasons for this are numerous and often complex psychological explanations, but they’re fairly easy to simplify as well. When a leader generates (or even allows) fun in the workplace, the benefits go far beyond getting a few quick laughs. Fun in the office usually leads to a major increase in how much employees trust and rely on management, as well as their colleagues.

In addition, many leaders notice an increase in creativity when there’s more fun at work, and communication also flows more freely. Companies with happy employees have a number of significant advantages, including lower turnover, higher productivity, less sick leave, and less burnout.

As a leader, you can put your own stamp on providing fun in the workplace. Don’t be afraid to be creative and plan things you think your employees will enjoy!

4) Perks

When it comes to income, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that millennials are more apt to leave a job for financial reasons than previous generations. Millennials aren’t going to wait around and hope their income rises to their expectations — they’ll just go find a new job that suits their needs.

With this in mind, it’s important for employers to always have a finger on the pulse of employee attitudes regarding compensation. Real leaders doesn’t allow themselves to get caught off-guard by an unsatisfied employee leaving for another job.

The matter of perks is a bit more complicated, because different people want different perks. In general, we can say that millennials tend to want an enjoyable workplace, and one that is centered around the employee rather than the employer.

To properly address the issue of perks, I figured it might be easier to break them down into categories. Your millennial employees won’t all use every single perk their employer offers, but if there’s a nice mix, they’ll use and appreciate the ones that apply to them.

  • Community Perks: Supporting community involvement is one popular way to provide perks to your employees. You can satisfy employees who like these perks by offering to sponsor employee sports teams, organizing volunteering outings for the entire company, non-work-related company retreats, etc.
  • Indulgent Perks: Everyone loves to be pampered, and you might be surprised by how powerful the effect on your employees can be. You could hire a massage therapist to come into the office and give chair massages, or stock an employee kitchen with complimentary beverages and snacks, or even provide tickets to sporting events and concerts. Use your imagination!
  • Lifestyle Perks: Who doesn’t want to improve their lifestyle, especially at work where we typically have little control over it? This includes stuff I already covered earlier, like flexible scheduling and remote working. However, this also refers to perks like casual dress codes, rewards for following wellness programs (such as providing bonuses for employees who check into the gym regularly), or even just respecting your employees by not contacting them outside of work hours.
  • Convenience Perks: Simply going to work is incredibly inconvenient for many people. Not only do you have to waste time commuting, but it also means that errands must be run after work or on weekends — or in other words, during peak hours. If you’re going to make your employees travel to a physical office every day, you should consider including some convenience perks. These could include an on-site gym, or errand services — really anything that helps make up for all the time your employees lose traveling.
  • Work Culture Perks: At the end of the day, what most millennials want from their employer is a great culture at work — something that makes that daily commute I just discussed feel worth it. These perks can include direct access to upper management regardless of job title, or perhaps lunch with the CEO on employees’ birthdays, etc. Be creative! Anything that increases transparency is likely to help contribute to a positive atmosphere.

5) Networking Opportunities

Millennials are elite networkers, which can honestly be either a positive or a negative for employers, depending on whether they’re a good fit as an employee. Their networking abilities are a huge positive in the way they easily establish relationships with both colleagues and clients alike.

Millennials typically have hundreds or even thousands of connections on social media, so when you think about it, many millennials have cultivated about 1,000 relationships — at least to the point of exchanging Facebook info. You know what I call that? Applicable work experience!

This generation is well-versed in so many different kinds of communication that it’ll make your head spin. Millennials successfully network in person, via text, on Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Snapchat, Slack, Google Hangouts, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc. And if it sounds like I’m exaggerating, how about this: I personally have every one of those apps currently installed on my smartphone, and I use them all at least a semi-regular basis. Seriously.

When it comes to building professional relationships, millennials also differ from previous generations quite a bit. While old-school methods ranged from grabbing coffee to playing a round of golf while talking shop, millennials are more apt to be creative.

Some millennials will stick to the tried and true methods, of course, but others will meet up to work out or play high-intensity sports. Many will even meet up for a happy hour! As Michael Scott said in The Office, “Chili’s is the new golf course. It’s where business happens.” (I’m just kidding — please don’t ever take business advice from Michael Scott, and you also probably shouldn’t meet up with a professional contact at a Chili’s franchise.)

Millennials are also highly apt when it comes to building relationships before ever meeting a professional contact in person. Many of them grew up in the heyday of internet chat rooms and AOL Instant Messenger. From a young age, they’ve been cultivating relationships with people they either haven’t met in person, or don’t know particularly well. These days, they’re messaging back and forth with potential clients, spanning several subjects before meeting up face to face.

Interestingly enough, one thing millennials don’t particularly excel at in the networking world is talking on the phone. They see talking on the phone as inefficient and outdated, and dislike the way there’s no written record of the conversation that they can refer to later to check details. Also, voice communication without accompanying video feeds miss out on the ever-important nonverbal communication cues — which is why services like Skype still maintain their popularity with millennials.

These networking attributes can turn into a negative for your business if the millennial employee becomes unhappy with their job. In those situations, they can network their way right into another job. Especially as sites like LinkedIn continue to gain popularity, it’s likely that many of your employees have at least looked at other opportunities simply out of curiosity.

This is one of the reasons millennials move so freely between jobs — they’re often just a few clicks away from a whole new career. The key is making sure they never get more than curious about other options.

Millennials Leading Us: Developing the Future of the Workplace

As millennials age, they find themselves in an ever-increasing number of leadership positions themselves. I expect some significant shifts in the way we think about and accomplish our work over the next decade or so, and these changes will encompass several different aspects of professional life.

Not all of these are realistic (or even possible) today, but I think there’s real value in anticipating the workplace of the future now. If you know where you expect to end up, it’s easier to lead the people who will eventually implement these strategies in the future.

1) More Remote Work and Flexible Hours

We’ve already discussed millennials’ preference for telecommuting and flexible scheduling, as well as how you can implement these strategies as a leader. Now, let’s talk about where I think millennials as leaders will take these concepts next.

With millennials in charge, I expect to see work-life balance take center stage in the professional world, especially as automation and artificial intelligence enter the conversation (more on this in a bit!). Recent studies show that employees hit optimal engagement with their regular work tasks when spending around 70% of their “on the clock” time off-site.

Currently, only around 3% of the American workforce telecommutes at least half of the time, but that number will almost certainly skyrocket in the coming years. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if we eventually reach a point where 50% of all employees work remotely. Perhaps coworking offices are the way of the future, where people who all work for different companies share workspace in a mutually convenient location.

To help prepare millennials for this possibility, try to lead them in a manner that emphasizes maximum flexibility. Show them the value of telecommuting. Show them the value of flexible scheduling. You can even partner with a couple other businesses in your area to offer occasional coworking scenarios. By introducing them to these concepts first-hand today, you’ll help get them ready to lead their own workforce in the future.

2) Eliminate the Communication Hierarchy

One common characteristic of millennials is the way they desire constant interaction, and don’t want a boss that doesn’t regularly find time to talk shop with them. Millennials tend to be highly relationship-oriented to begin with, so it’s no surprise that this sentiment extends to their colleagues and even their superiors at the office.

One of the aspects of hierarchical management that millennials are most opposed to is the way it compartmentalizes communication. As someone in a leadership role today, it would behoove you to schedule regular meetings with millennial employees, whether there’s anything specific to discuss or not.

3) Increased Diversity and Inclusivity

Millennials are the most diverse generation ever, a trend which will continue with Generation Z after them. Because of this, they naturally have strong feelings about diversity and inclusion in the workplace. As millennials take on leadership positions, they will make these issues a top priority.

Additionally, many millennials feel that previous generations didn’t exactly handle diversity in an appropriate manner, which only adds more urgency to the need for inclusion. This doesn’t solely refer to age, race, gender, and religion, but also extends to people with different viewpoints and philosophies.

As a leader of millennials today, it should serve you well to demonstrate how important the inclusion of different backgrounds is to you. Millennials will be more receptive to people in leadership positions if they feel they’re on the same page regarding equality of opportunity.

4) Dealing With Technology’s Future

We’ve already started to see the impact of machine learning, automation, and artificial intelligence (AI) in the workplace. Companies like Google and IBM have both made major strides in recent years with large-scale machine learning projects, and automation is already simplifying many tasks in the technology workspace.

The issue for millennials will be ensuring that the future development of the automation process benefits everyone, instead of just a select few. If navigated correctly, AI and machine learning could eventually automate enough tasks to reduce the amount of work required of the average person.

To lead millennials today, it could help to simply make yourself aware of these issues. If you even demonstrate any awareness of machine learning and artificial intelligence, you’ll be a step ahead of most people, who probably don’t think about this stuff at all!

I’ve obviously covered a ton of ground in this article, but I hope I presented all the information in a way that was easy to digest and didn’t get overwhelming. There’s a lot to keep in mind when it comes to leadership for millennials, but if you simply focus on being transparent and honest with employees at all levels of your organization, I think you’ll find great success!