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How to Lead Millennials

By Lauren Friese and Rumeet Billan

Understanding and learning how to lead this new generation has become an integral part of organizations’ people strategy.

What is a millennial?

Millennials, born roughly between 1981 and 1994 make up over 40% of the Canadian workforce. Understanding and learning how to lead this cohort, who seek environments that foster autonomy, authenticity and achievement and ones that allow them to engage in work that is meaningful, has become an integral part of organizations’ people strategy.

Much has been written about Millennials, and they have often been labelled as entitled, lazy and narcissistic. However, many of these labels are timeless examples of words used to describe the qualities of youth, going all the way back to Socrates’ famous declaration that “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise”.

While the majority of Millennial labels confuse the unique characteristics of a generation with youthfulness, the increase in “follow your passion” career advice, the explosion of gaming culture, and “celebrate everything” parenting, is unique to their experience. As a result, in the workplace, meaningful employment, instant feedback, acknowledgement and rewards are a part of their self-perception and identity. For leaders, there is an opportunity to tap into the unique characteristics of Millennials and leverage the attributes of this generation.

Generational qualities versus youthfulness

In May 2013, Time magazine caught the attention of many with their cover of a young woman who is pictured taking a ‘selfie’ with the headline “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation”. Similarly, in 2013, a Macleans magazine cover about Millennials proclaimed that they were “The New Underclass”, followed by “Why so many smart, educated, ambitious young people have no future”.

However, Millennials are not the only generation to be labelled in such a way. In the 1990s, CBC ran an entire series which covered the hardships faced by “lazy” Gen X. The pattern, repeated for at least the last three generations, is the same:

Society sees hope in children, celebrating the potential of a yet-untested group whose youthfulness and distance from working age makes them both exciting and a safe bet to route for. But as those children approach working age, the dialogue shifts. Generally, the youngest generation in the workplace is labelled as lazy and entitled, and complaints arise that they have unrealistic expectations of a workplace they have not yet experienced. A decade later, the group previously branded as lazy joins the ranks of the complainers, lamenting the entrance of the latest generation.
In other words, many of the labels we use to describe to Millennials relate to their youthfulness – their stage of life – and not to the unique experience and attributes of the generation.

The Millennial Experience So Far

As the eldest cohort of their generation prepared to enter the workplace in 2008 and 2009, Millennials not only saw their job prospects seemingly disappear, but were also exposed to the fragility of careers, witnessing their siblings, parents and friends experience job loss and potential employment prospects disappear. The transparency, loyalty and authenticity of organizations came into question.

To be sure, Millennials were not the first generation to experience an economic downturn and certainly the downturn of 2008 and 2009 was not the worst of them. Unlike previous generations, though, Millennials have access to and have sought alternatives which include self-employment, contract and “gig” work that provide autonomy and flexibility. This is a result of a combination of technological innovation, changing attitudes in the workplace, permission from trusted influencers to seek meaningful work over earnings and increased access to continued education. These shifts have made it a challenge for organizations to attract, retain and lead a generation that has found perceived stability in autonomy.

A 2014 Harvard Business Review article entitled “Gen Y’s Passion Problem” highlighted the fact that Millennials were the first generation to grow up being encouraged to “Follow Your Passion”. For Millennials, deriving meaning from work is fundamental to their identity. Understanding how to lead them is a challenge many organizations are facing today.

While every recent generation has struggled to square off their expectations and desires of work with the realities of it, Millennials are particularly well poised to successfully and significantly shift work culture and demand a new style of leadership. Leaders seeking to inspire and empower their employees can leverage the attributes of this generation by creating an environment comprised of autonomy, authenticity and achievement.

1. Autonomy

Advancements in technology have enabled flexibility in the way people connect to work, communicate at work, and complete their work. The traditional hierarchical structure has become outdated and does not work for organizations where employees actively seek flexibility. It may seem difficult to foster autonomy - independence in one’s thoughts and actions - within an organization, however, there are many benefits to creating an environment where it is nurtured.

Further, many processes, software and hardware, that exist in Canadian workplaces today exist because of decisions made under different conditions – either because of existing technology at the time, or prevailing wisdom on best practices. This phenomenon – and handicap to the future of business – is called “path dependency” in the study of economics, and is also famously explored by Clay Christensen in “The Innovator’s Dilemma”.

Regardless of whether the barriers to change are real or perceived, Millennials, brimming with a combination of current youth and experience growing up with rapidly changing technology, expect innovation in processes, software and hardware – and not just for innovation’s sake, but for the purpose of not doing something a certain way because that is the way it has always been done, or for another equally unsatisfactory reason.

For leaders, nurturing intrapreneurship – the act of behaving like an entrepreneur while working within an organization - will provide Millennials with permission and confidence to take risks to solve for problems and challenges that the organization is currently facing. An environment that allows for measured and responsible risk-taking can create a culture of trust and openness. For Millennials, this type of autonomy is meaningful.

2. Authenticity

Examining authenticity through the lens of the Millennial experience is relatively new. Millennials have come of age in the age of nearly ubiquitous access to information and the rise of social media, making it much more difficult to develop a sense of self that is not impacted by the opinions of others.

A desire for and expectation of authenticity and transparency has been established through modern educational methods (for example, the introduction of rubrics into Ontario classrooms), digital gaming, and technology that has firmly established a divide between advertisements and authentic content. Social media has also had an impact, creating an expectation of authentic communication – with friends, celebrities and even brands.

For organizations, it has created an opportunity to communicate with employees (and customers) and also an expectation that that communication will be authentic. Many organizations have used social media to create authentic dialogue with their Millennial employees with much success. Others, recognizing the opportunity for social media to play a significant positive role for their organizations, have leveraged Millennials for reverse mentoring to learn about how to effectively use various social media platforms, or even for leadership in this area.

Further, social media has made it much more difficult for both brands and individuals to plan and execute privately, misrepresent themselves and conceal secrets. It is expected that leadership “walk the talk”. Ultimately, the transparency and authenticity of an organization and its leadership impacts retention and the choice to stay with an employer. Authentic and transparent communication – in person, through digital channels, and via social media – are favoured strategies for effectively connecting with Millennials.

3. Achievement

Those who have attended a Kindergarten graduation ceremony know that the Millennial experience can be characterized by constant achievement and generally positive reinforcement.
Further, Millennials have grown up in an environment in which digital gaming has become increasingly popular and accessible. Among the hallmarks of gaming are consistent transparency (always knowing your score and what you need to do to get to the next level) and constant achievement (leveling up).

Finally, the use of social media and the ability to provide instant feedback - with a “like” or an emoticon - on pictures, posts or comments has had an immense impact on this generation’s sense of self. These factors, among others, have contributed to a culture in which Millennials expect constant feedback on performance, if not constant rewards, impacting their identity.

In the workplace, this translates into an expectation that good work be rewarded and recognized on a regular basis. Most leaders can easily understand this, and understand that while it is unrealistic to offer weekly promotions or salary increases, it has also become unrealistic (and unreasonable) to only provide feedback through an annual performance review. For leaders, finding a way to communicate feedback on an on-going basis, whether it is in-person or digitally, would be beneficial.

Millennials: opportunity for everyone

In an environment in which media headlines amplify and echo an already difficult transition from school to work, many Millennials struggle to find work that challenges them, let alone work that satisfies their need to follow their passion. Further, “Follow Your Passion” advice exacerbates the gap between expectations and reality, which is commonly felt by anyone leaving the familiar and safe environment of schooling for adulthood and full-time work.

Many of the behaviours and desires of Millennials at work are the result of their experience as children – their parenting, schooling, coaching etc. It can be assumed that parents, educators and coaches celebrated failure, encouraged a “follow your passion” mentality, and otherwise modelled behaviours that have led to a generation that seeks flexibility, authenticity and achievement at work because they felt that it was better.

While these experiences are often assumed to be negative influences on the Millennial workplace experience, creating unrealistic expectations and friction between leaders, managers and employees, unlike Nike’s encouragement to “Just Do It” in the late 1980s and the famous “Make Love, Not War” ethos of then-youthful Baby Boomers in the 1960s, the idea of finding work that is meaningful, fulfilling and rooted in achievement, has the potential to become a reality in the 21st century.

As such, while much that has been written above suggests a leadership style that will specifically benefit Millennials, we believe that the changes suggested will ultimately benefit all participants in the workplace – “entitled” Millennials, “Lazy” Gen X, and “Hippie” Boomers alike.


Dr. Rumeet Billian is President, Jobs in Education and Partner, Viewpoint Leadership, and an award winning and internationally recognized leader who continues to focus her efforts on enabling opportunities in education. Lauren Friese. Lauren is one of Canada's top digital entrepreneurs and a leading expert on millennials and careers, as well as the founder of TalentEgg.ca.

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