Don’t lead millennials, let them lead you

Millennials are uniquely skilled, impressively balanced and socially aware. To lead them, help them become leaders. Don’t call them Millennials or apply too much “management”. Offer guidance. Soon they will lead you. After some time, our digital society will function properly.

In our time societal change is so rapid that the old are holding back and the young are rushing forward. As a result, we are too far apart to hear and understand each other. Our generations have become disjointed.

The post-WWII generation was dubbed “Baby boomers” as a name for the changes society underwent at the time. Today we use the term “Millennials” to describe those who reached adulthood at the start of the new millennium. Labeling groups of people has its risks. It allows us to lump together key questions and solve them elegantly. It also may cause us to project our problems on the labeled group. The unnamed generation of 40-60 year olds better beware. The problem is not the Millennials. The problem (if any) is how the rest of us relate to them.

Leadership is built on simple and eternal principles. Respecting and trying to understand those you lead is a great start. In their work, people look for purpose, autonomy and a path to mastery. Don’t tell them what to do but what needs to be achieved. Listen more than you instruct.

Still, in day-to-day leadership situations, we regularly misunderstand each other. A young employee may not feel listened to while a seasoned manager feels not spoken to. The manager relies on email while the team is communicating on Slack. The manager offers bonuses for more work, while the employee is looking for opportunities for free time. The manager thinks he is honest and forthcoming, but the team experiences a self-centered and aggressive manner. A leader thinks she is approachable, but the team does not.

If these leadership challenges are not addressed resolutely, the result is what Patrick Lencioni describes as the “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team”: Absence of Trust, Fear of Conflict, Lack of Commitment, Avoidance of Accountability, and Inattention to Results. We will dance around the essential topics, showing a smiling face to avoid having to deal with the uncomfortable confrontation of the real issue: that we do not understand each other and don’t know how to perform as a team.

The reason for our cross-generational leadership challenges is not one or the other generation. It is the fact that the world is changing.

  • Change is faster and cycles are shorter. Employment is not for a lifetime. Permanent initiatives are now split up as time-bound projects. Modern metrics give us a reading of every moment. As a result, employees need more frequent feedback. Gratification needs to come sooner. It is not due to narcissism that employees need constant feedback but because we ask for constant output.
  • Agility is increasing. Planning is good, but changing plans is greater. A/B testing influences our next step. Priorities change. No surprise then that employees start behaving this way too. Suddenly they may need time off for travel or to work on another project. We asked for agility and it is what we got.
  • Technology evolves so fast that many new employees are better experts than the tenured ones. To get the most out of technological advances, we need to hire younger people. As a result, we have inexperienced people in vital roles. Senior leaders need to find the right balance. Let the young make mistakes. Don’t instruct or obstruct. Provide mentorship and coaching. Have patience with the outcome, just like someone once had patience with you.
  • The world is flat. The corporate world used to be more hierarchical. With matrix organizations and flat hierarchies, command and control is gone. Work happens because co-workers voluntarily decide so. The newer generations have adopted this model and they excel at it.
  • The world is in better shape. For the last several decades, mankind has made great progress towards eradicating illiteracy, minimizing famine, extending life expectancy and reducing poverty. Today the world is safer. More people than ever have an opportunity to become contributing and successful members of society. As a result, our younger generations have a new view of the world. They embrace the planet and think in more egalitarian terms. This is wonderful news.

The generation we call the Millennials is reacting to societal changes in a most rational and pragmatic way. They adapt to the situation and make the most of it. When the older generation can’t seem to understand the younger one, the problem is with the former. It got stuck in thinking that the world is static when the world is constantly evolving.

How should a senior manager lead a team of younger employees?

  • Always lead with values.
  • Be sincere and show as much trust as you would like to receive.
  • Start with curiosity. Abandon your assumptions. Try to understand your employees. Ask them what they want to get out of this, whether it is a long-term commitment or a project of short span. Listen.
  • Let them influence the overall direction and key priorities.
    Don’t be intimidated by their inflated expectations on job title and compensation. You probably behaved the same way at that stage of your career.
  • Provide opportunities for 1:1 discussions, and not just with your direct reports. Be a mentor and coach. Be open about your own vulnerabilities and weaknesses.
  • Treat them as volunteers. Give them autonomy. Let them make mistakes. Use the errors as exercises in how to provide and receive feedback, both good and bad.
  • Acknowledge the strengths of the way they act. They are quick and agile, not letting hierarchies get in the way of getting stuff done. They acknowledge their weaknesses and appreciate all aspects of the human being, not just the one that puts in hours in the office. They are less aggressive and more communal, eager to discuss societal topics and self-development.
  • Figure out ways to turn the young into leaders. Encourage them to step up. Help them with the skills needed to advance in their career. Celebrate when they are capable of replacing you.

The key to good leadership is to take responsibility for results and to acknowledge everyone’s contributions. Young professionals hold the keys to the future and seasoned leaders to leadership and strategy. Let power blend with wisdom. The organization that can be productive across the greatest generational span is likely to outperform other organizations.

Marten Mickos

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