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7 Things Every Leader Should Know About Working With Millennials

I have a confession: I love working with Millennials.

As a Gen Xer, that puts me at odds with more than a few other Gen Xers and Baby Boomers who love to complain about a lack of work ethic, poor grammar or the sense of entitlement they think Millennials bring to the workplace.

I just don’t see it the same way. I have worked with quite a few Millennials on our team at Connexus Church and here behind the scenes here on my blog and podcast.

Given that the eldest Millennials are now pushing 40, a good chunk of your workforce is likely Millennials (they’re hardly kids anymore).  In fact, Millennials are now the largest generation in the labor force, outpacing even the Boomers who are retiring. So it’s rather important we figure this generational tension out.

Are Millennials different? Well, of course. Every generation has its quirks. Mine does too.

But just know this, older leaders: It’s hard to mobilize a generation you roll your eyes at.

There are at least 7 distinct characteristics of Millennials I’ve come to appreciate as I’ve learned how to work with them, lead them and even befriend them. The characteristics are relevant whether you’re dealing with paid staff or volunteers (or maybe even your kids).

Once you understand them, things become a lot easier. In my view, working with Millennials (and hanging out with them) is one of the great rewards and pleasures of leadership.

1. They work for themselves

While they may not articulate it, most Millennials approach life as though they are working for themselves, not for you, whether you hire them as employees or on contract.

Sure, that might sound strange, but hang on and try to get into their head space for a minute.

First, any younger leader realizes they will likely NOT work for the same organization for 40 years and retire. Not only are the pension plans of the 60s and 70s long gone, but the workforce changes so quickly that most younger leaders expect to have multiple careers throughout their life, not just multiple jobs in different organizations.

Second, thanks to technology, the start-up culture is huge. Many leaders realize they can start things far easier than people could a generation a year ago. You can influence the world through your keyboard, your phone or a microphone. It used to cost millions to launch something. Now you can launch something on a Saturday morning for the price of a phone.

Third, we live (rightly or wrongly) in an era of personal branding. Couples have logos and fonts. And almost everyone wants to express their style through fashion, design, photography or lifestyle.

What this means is that most Millennials has subconsciously realized they have to create a life plan that’s independent of any employer or organization.

This isn’t fatal to any organization once you understand it.

What it means though, as a leader, manager or boss, is that you need to come alongside them and help them realize their objectives.

If you see those life objectives as competing with your objectives, you’ll lose them. If they see that you want them to win, they’ll hang around a long time.

Here’s the bottom line with young leaders: If you help Millennials win, you’ll both win. If you merely want them to help you win, you’ll lose.

2. They want to work toward a cause bigger than you or the bottom line

You know the stereotype: Millennials want to change the world and believe they can do it.

Again, before you roll your eyes, remember (older leaders), you raised them to have values like these. And some of them are doing it. So cut the cynicism.

What this means though is that your mission is more important than ever.

Leaders who want to preserve the institution, pad the bottom line, or simply grow the organization will always struggle to attract and keep young leaders.

For the church, this should be easy. If you’re truly mission-driven (you want to reach people or impact your community), your ethos has an instant appeal to younger adults. Just keep the mission central.

If you’re in business, profit won’t be nearly the motivator that cause is. If you don’t know what your cause is, figure it out.

Similarly, you might think of yourself as a great leader people want to work with (actually, that’s usually a sign you’re not a great leader), but I promise you Millennials aren’t that impressed with you.

The best way to attract and keep young leaders is to work with them to accomplish a greater purpose.

Leaders, if the mission isn’t bigger than you, you need a new mission.

3. They actually want to work

Many people accuse Millennials of wanting too many holidays, time off or easy hours.

That’s true to some extent. The next generation doesn’t want to be chained to a desk in a soul-less organization.

But if you make the mission the main thing, you’ll see many young leaders come alive and give over-and-above effort again and again.

Do they want a vacation? Of course. And you should give it to them.

You should want your team to live in a way today that will help them thrive tomorrow, and some of that involves rest and interests far beyond work.

A great mission and a sense that they’re part of a movement that’s making a difference is exceptionally motivating to most young leaders.

Most Millennials really want to work. They just want meaningful work.

Again, if you’re rolling your eyes as an older leader, let me just suggest you wanted meaningful work at one point or another as well. If you gave up on that dream, dream again.

4. If you give them a bit of freedom, they give you more back

Most leaders don’t like being told what to do. But almost no leader likes being told how to do it.

The workplace of a generation ago insisted on things like showing up at 8:30 every morning and putting in time until 4:30, on being present every day in the office whether you had anything to do or not.

Today, the feels like a prison sentence to most office workers. It even does to me…so I abandoned that mantra decades ago.

Sometimes there’s a reason a team member has to be at a desk for 8 hours. I get that. If you host the reception desk or do something else that ties you to a particular space at a particular time, I understand that.

But for most office workers, that’s just not true.

I’ve found if you let team members set their own start and finish times, and even give them the flexibility to work from home or a coffee shop, the rewards are enormous for the entire team or organization.

When we’ve had physical offices (my team for this blog and the podcast is virtual), we encouraged employees to be in the office one or two common days a week just to build a deeper sense of connection. My general rule is this: just be present for the meetings and commitments you need to be at. Beyond that, it’s up to you.

Will people sometimes take advantage of it? Sure. So have a conversation about it.

But usually, when you give your team freedom, they give you back far more than you expect.

5. They don’t have as much confidence as you think

If you’re dealing with leaders in their 20s, you’ll discover that they don’t quite have the confidence you might expect from, say, a 25-year-old.

Remember, they’ve been raised to believe they can do anything (which was likely a parenting mistake), but life is quickly teaching them you need a skill-set to do things, and of course, none of us has a skill-set for everything.

As Tim Elmore has pointed out, over-affirmation by doting parents has caused us to raise a generation that suffers high arrogance and low self-esteem. As they move into adulthood, Millennials are realizing there’s a massive gap between they’ve been told and what they’ve discovered.

The result? They feel like they should be able to do what you’ve asked them to do, but most feel rather inadequate to do it.

There’s an easy fix for this. Believe in them as people, and train them in the skill set they need.

Simple training and equipping in things like time management, basic budgeting, self-discipline or the hard skill set they need to do the job can be tremendously helpful.

Again (you’ll see a trend here), if they know you’re for them and you’ll help them, they’ll respond beautifully to the mission ahead of them.

6. They are wide open to mentoring and coaching

I am little shocked at how open Millennials are to mentoring and coaching.

When I was in my twenties, I didn’t want advice from anyone who was over 30. Not so anymore.

I am amazed at how many young leaders and young adults who attend our church want to learn from older adults. In fact, the majority of my audience for this blog and podcast is

The majority of the audience for this blog and for my podcast appears to be young leaders under 40. The current small group my wife and I lead consists entirely of people between 25-35 (other than us). And the conversation is effortless, stimulating and enjoyable.

One reason many older leaders don’t like younger leaders is because they don’t truly know any young leader.

Hang out with them. Get to know them. Do life with them.

Don’t ‘offer your services.’ Just be their friend. The mentoring and coaching will happen organically and naturally.

In many cases, younger leaders are far more open to learning than many older leaders.

7. How you treat them is more valuable than money

I’m a firm believer in paying a living wage to any team member (yes, even in church), but you soon discover than money is not the primary motivator for many Millennials.

Forced to choose between a job that pays well but where team members were treated poorly, and a job that paid maybe $10,000 a year less but where people thrived, many Millennials would choose the lower pay.

I don’t think you should make people choose between poor pay and great working conditions, but the point is simple: pay motivates a young leader far less than other things.

All the money in the world doesn’t compensate for a lack of mission or a lack of heart.

What Are You Learning?

I would love to hear both from young leaders and over 40 leaders on this one.

Scroll down and leave a comment.

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29 Comments

  1. Craig Millar on April 6, 2017 at 12:41 am

    Im a gen X leader with both millennial and boomer staff. I have to be “all things to all people” and adapt my personal style to do well with both extremes. Collaboration is truly so important to millennial. And the ones on our staff are not afraid to work hard when they know their contribution is valued and the vision is meaningful.

  2. Christoph Koebel on March 28, 2017 at 9:51 pm

    These points are also true if your leader is half your age

  3. Jonathan D on March 28, 2017 at 3:50 pm

    Thank you Carey for writing this. In my professional life micro-managing from my leader has been the slow death of me, my leadership skills, and my drive. The “buck stops with me” mentality plagues many baby boomers and stifles organizational growth and spiritual health. I actually think us Get-Xers are caught in the middle of a transitional battle. We’re old enough to understand the “old ways’ but young enough to dare to try something new. Yet the leaders of the generation before us don’t see our potential and the generation of leaders after us don’t really need us.

  4. Darrell Roland on March 21, 2017 at 11:43 am

    Thank you Carey! So happy to had read this as too often my conversations with other XPs and church leaders land on the negative side. I love watching millennials lead. They lead with a passion, commitment and clarity beyond previous generations. I have a team of millennials and sure, it is challenging, but it has nothing to do with them. It is the framework of my own life.

  5. […] Carey Nieuwhof   |   7 Things Every Leader Should Know About Working With Millennials […]

  6. Stacia on March 13, 2017 at 10:08 pm

    I’ve read many of your posts over the years, but I love this! I’m really happy that enough time and dust has settled for people outside of the “millennial generation” to start getting a handle on what being a millennial is all about. Point number one is spot on, and I feel like a lot more churches (and employers in general) could go several steps further if they could figure out how to channel it rather than viewing it is a threat or competition to the church’s own ministry.
    You are a senior leader with such a young heart, and I think that’s why so many young people do heed your counsel. Since millennials can come off as “know it all– google it real quick researchers” having an unassuming senior leader that’s willing to engage millennials in that frame of mind, and then humbling interacting with them, goes really far in helping them learn about the humility they also need. Keep it up!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 14, 2017 at 5:05 am

      Thanks Stacia! So appreciate it. It’s a fun adventure!

  7. A Questioning Listener on March 13, 2017 at 8:38 am

    As a Millennial, I find your words encouraging since you describe Millennials positively in a time when most people use pejorative language to describe Millennials. It is good to have mentors, and I have two official mentors now and several unofficial mentors.

    However, with many of your posts I find that you forget to discuss how Jesus may have interacted with the material you’re discussing. As for this conversation on Millennials, some good questions would be to ask how Jesus might engage, train, support, serve and care for Millennials. Further more, it would be helpful for you to actually use voices of Millennials in your post about Millennials. And how have you experienced community with Millennials through the small group, and how has that reflected the life of the Church or challenged current perceptions of the Church? How might Jesus be reflected in Millennials and how might Jesus challenge Millennials?

  8. Weekend Leadership Roundup - Hope's Reason on March 11, 2017 at 6:25 pm

    […] 7 Things Every Leader Should Know About Working With Millennials – Carey Nieuhof […]

  9. Jen on March 11, 2017 at 12:37 pm

    As a 28-year-old (single) woman I whole heartedly agree with number 6 (mentoring). The rest seem spot on as well from my perspective. I would love to have a discipleship relationship with believers older than me, but have struggled to find a way to form those relationships. It seems like every church I’ve been part of has been so segregated, starting as a kid with Sunday school! Small groups (if they exist) are based around a certain demographic. Singles, young marrieds, older adults, men, women, etc. I often think that this is not how the church is meant to be. There is very little opportunity to break in and get to know whole families, or those who don’t fit my demographic. How can we help each other grow when we don’t even know each other? I hope this will change with the next generation, as the millennials who long for discipleship become the older believers themselves.

    There are a couple of young teenage girls who I’ve been leading in Bible study this year. They are my little sisters in Christ, and I consider both them and their parents to be friends. I’d like to continue discipling them over the coming years, and to be an “older mentor” to them. Do you have any books to recommend on this topic?

    • Josh Pezold on March 11, 2017 at 8:58 pm

      Hey Jen! Just to chime in… my encouragement regarding mentoring is to do it yourself. Ask. I’ve never been asked or invested by any of my mentors but I had to seek them out. I’ve even been told no before and honestly, sometimes I needed to move on because it wasn’t beneficial. But asking for someone to speak into your life is so powerful. It’s the same process of asking for a friend when your an adult. It can be awkward but we all need it. Great job investing into those girls. I’m sure they value it greatly.

  10. Walter Swaim on March 11, 2017 at 8:34 am

    I’ve been in ministry for 30 years. It’s funny because depending on who you listen to I’m either the edge of a boomer or buster, LOL. I have been on staff of a large church, a foreign and home missionary, church planter and pastor.

    I did my Masters thesis as well on Millennials and faith.

    I have to say for every other point in your observations it defaults back to #1 pretty quickly in my experience and erodes from there. I am glad you’re experience has been more positive. I believe (and I say this anecdotally but experientally) that you’re correct on the more positive points with maybe 10% of Millennials (I’m being generous) who already have a good heart or open to change from their ubiquitous narcissism – or raised by good parents or have turned to Jesus. The ones you speak of have those characteristics but are the outliers (and may their tribe increase!).

    The majority I have seen are about fun, party, person with friends, no education or endless education to escape life, no desire to be mentored and if so they do so it’s by other peers, see Jesus, Christianity and church as a waste of time and close minded, and more. I have seen the shift where 30 years or more ago great numbers would rise and say “Lord send me” but now barely stay at a job on average more than 18 months.

    A good book to read on the realtors of this is The Great Evangelical Recession.

    I pray this turns around but am doubtful. I read a biography on Jonathan Edwards and he decried the youth of the day and his description was almost like that of Millennials. I pray that like Elijah the Lord will show us, who think we’re the only ones, that there are actually hundreds and more who won’t bow to Baal.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 11, 2017 at 11:35 am

      That’s really too bad you’ve had that experience. To say I’ve dealt with hundreds of Millennials in leadership is not an exaggeration. Maybe the best ones go to our church and read this blog or listen to my podcast. I don’t know. But do you think negative attitudes by older people create a negative response in the people you meet? You sure don’t sound like you like them. People tend to respond negatively to people who don’t like them, regardless of age. I find young people to be the way I described them in the post above. I really do. Are there a few exceptions? Sure. But not many. I’d prefer working with younger people than folks my age most days. Better attitude to be honest.

  11. Jason Silver on March 10, 2017 at 8:25 pm

    “I am amazed at how many young leaders and young adults who attend our church want to learn from older adults.”

    Unfortunately, in my case, I’ve found just the opposite to be true. I Pastor a Church that meets in a Bible College chapel on Sundays, but I also teach and work with students in the Bible college at times during the week.

    Myself and other instructors offer counsel and make ourselves available… But many times the millennial age students just scorn our counsel. They end up telling us their opinions about how things should or should not be done.

    When I was a young person and had a chance to sit with a Pastor or leader… I listened… and asked questions, I couldn’t get enough… I wanted to learn from them.

    So without sounding like one of “the complaining old guys”. I have been working on working with them from where they’re at.

    Admittedly it’s not easy, and sometimes I feel like they have no sense of honoring those who’ve gone before them, but ultimately we older dudes have to bring a willingness to promote solutions not problems.

    We all know that anyone can point out problems… Which doesn’t help anyone.

    Carey just started your book “Lasting Impact” Love it!! Blessings bro!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 11, 2017 at 5:57 am

      Hey Jason…thanks for the encouraging words and I’m so sorry to hear this is your experience. I really have had a different one. I wonder if you could get a few people close to you to help you drill down on why. I find I often wait to be asked rather than to offer advice, but leaders under 40 always seem to ask. So do most young adults. Strange that we’ve had different experiences.

  12. Sara Drake on March 10, 2017 at 12:22 pm

    I think some of your points are quite valid, but there is a further point that might ease some of the generational tension. That is communication. Many millennials respond to issues or statements they do not understand or agree with with an in-your-face nasty and often vulgar comments. They not only need a skill set, they also need to learn civil discourse, where you respect the person/people you are communicating with, actually listen to them and understand their point of view BEFORE responding – and then respond in a courteous way. I spent a lot of time communicating with people during the election. I noticed that people had fundamental gaps in knowledge of history (even what happened ten years ago), events and political events. If one tried to fill in the gap, the invariable answer was not: that’s interesting, thanks for the input, but you’re a liar, a troll, crazy, a member of some party they dislike, etc. They were not willing to listen to and discuss other points of view. It is at this point that people begin to despair as to whether the millennials will ever be capable of leading the country. At some point they need to change their attitudes. They are beginning to run out of mentors. They are being divisive and narrow-minded, aggressive and intolerant of other points of view. When are they going to learn the necessary skills and attitudes and step up to the plate of responsibility, tolerance and multiple skill sets and experience? They have us very worried.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 10, 2017 at 12:38 pm

      Totally not my experience with young adults, but appreciate the perspective and input!

      • Jake V8 on March 22, 2017 at 1:05 pm

        It’s really straight forward I think. There are many personalities, temperaments, maturity levels etc. within the millennial category (and respectively any age demographic). Who you surround yourself within that demographic plays part. From an outsiders view, Carey, how much interaction do you have with millennial’s who are not Christians, don’t go to your church or are just plain liberal anti-conservative.

  13. joshpezold on March 9, 2017 at 10:09 pm

    Love this Carey! I could relate with several points you made. As a Millennial myself, and having several friends in this generation, I’m finding most looking for mentors who will believe in us. As you say, bring out the best. Whoever we feel believes in us the most, we’ll follow.

    Senior Leaders who express belief, cast individualized vision, have…. I see in you… conversations will have committed millennial team members for a long time. Keep writing Carey!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 10, 2017 at 12:40 pm

      Love it Josh. So true. And thanks for what you do for young leaders. Y’all should check out Josh’s blog at http://youngchurchleaders.org.

      • Walter Swaim on March 11, 2017 at 8:36 am

        Josh is – thankfully – one of the Few I speak about in my post. Thank you Josh! Godspeed and make many more disciples of Jesus as you!

        • Josh Pezold on March 11, 2017 at 8:52 pm

          Thank you Walter. I appreciate the kind words. Don’t give up hope. Keep investing in us.

      • Josh Pezold on March 11, 2017 at 8:50 pm

        Thanks Carey. It’s helpful to hear your positive words. (and thanks for the shoutout. Hope I can help others too.) Side note after reading more comments, I worked with at risk youth for about 5 years before church planting for the past almost 5 years, and one truth I found that corresponds to the comments I’m reading is… “children, millennials, really people in general, will become who people consistently tell them they are.” If you tell a child they are a “bad kid” they will believe that and become that. If you, Carey, along with others, continue to believe and speak words of hope into us Millennials, we will become who God has called us to be. Keep speaking hope into us seasoned leaders, even if you don’t think we are listening, we are gravitating towards the hope you are offering.

  14. Mike Andrews on March 9, 2017 at 9:58 pm

    Thanks for this great post. Too many leaders are holding no hope for Milennials. I’ve been a youth pastor the past 20 years and have seen the results of acknowledging #5 especially.

    My Millennial students have been able to accomplish what they were afraid to dream when they were able to have someone come alongside them, trust them with meaningful work, and help them gain the skills they need to do the work.

  15. Zach Yentzer on March 9, 2017 at 5:31 pm

    Carey, thank you for your voice! I think the most critical piece of this- Millennials are now 20-36!!! Young professionals with maturity and ability to offer. Also, your observation about mentorship is on point. Crossing geography and culture and demographics at least in the US, I hear a desire for spiritual and professional mentorship over and over again. If the church misses this goldmine, it will be a sad opportunity lost.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 10, 2017 at 12:40 pm

      Thanks Zach. And for sure, no one’s a kid anymore in this generation.

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