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.
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 that 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 that 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.
Staying relevant is easy when you’re young. It gets a lot harder as you age.
Some leaders manage to figure it out. Others don’t.
In Didn’t See It Coming I explain, among other things, how to stay relevant as a leader and why some leaders are amazing at it while others struggle. In fact, irrelevance is almost guaranteed to happen in leadership because the leaders who grow irrelevant never see it coming.
I also tackle six other issues leaders rarely see coming: cynicism, burnout, compromise, pride and emptiness.
I would love nothing more than to see you thrive in life and leadership. That’s what Didn’t See It Coming is all about.
What Are You Learning?
I would love to hear both from young leaders and over 40 leaders on this one.
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