3 Reasons It’s (Almost) Impossible To Lead Millennials

At 24 I had my first opportunity to manage others. I managed a team of 15 and I was ill prepared for it. I made lots of mistakes but eventually found what worked. Over the next several years I had the opportunity to hold senior leadership positions within my organization and lead more than 100 employees in multiple locations, many of which were millennials. My experience has been and continues to show, that it is impossible to lead this generation with traditional thinking. Finding success with millennials can feel like getting my 5-year-old to clean our playroom.

In our home, we have a playroom for our children’s toys. As you can imagine, with two young girls, 5 and 3, this room often looks like the aftermath of a nuclear Barbie bomb. When I ask my oldest girl, McKay, to please clean the play room, inevitably, I discover one of three things upon my return:

  1. On rare occasions, the room is cleaned to the best of her ability. Although it isn’t as clean as her mom would want it, it is the best she can do.

  2. Other times the room is untouched and somehow my daughter has lost mobility in her arms and legs leaving her a paralyzed, whining heap on the ground.

  3. More often than not, though, I return to find the room completely untouched and my daughter has donned the persona of a royal princess with a crown, a scepter and a host of loyal plush subjects which may or may not include her 2-year old sister. The blank stares from her subjects indicate they have no intention of cleaning the room.

Clearly, what is important for my daughter differs from what is important for me. For this room to be cleaned it takes more than simply asking her to clean the play room or work by my rules. When it comes to millennials, many organizations feel similarly, like they’ve just walked into a room expecting productivity only to find princesses and paralysis.

What Do Companies See?

There is no shortage of research on the millennial generation. This is because of their current and predicted impact on the economy. Organizations are working fervently to wrap their heads around how to engage, attract and retain this group as both employees and as consumers.

  1. Millennials, are on average, disengaged at work 71% of the time. And 16% of the time they are actively working against their organizations.

  2. 60% of employed millennials are currently looking for work outside their organizations.

  3. Millennial turnover is costing organizations in the US $30.5 billion annually. Currently, between 25-40% of the workforce is made up of millennials, which means that companies will only lose more money to millennial churn as time goes on.

  4. Millennials seek mentorship and coaching from their leadership and they’re willing to jump ship to find it. Even if there is no lifeboat in sight. Engagement (and productivity) is tightly tied to the degree of coaching they receive with leaders of their teams and departments.

This article isn’t focused on why this generation acts the way they do, rather it works to refocus leaders on ‘why’ organizations continue to struggle to influence this group. What makes this generation nearly impossible to lead are three things and has little to do with millennials.

Three Reasons You Might be Failing to Lead Millennials.

You Don’t Show Up

This generation demands a leadership presence. I say demand because previous generations hope for similar leadership but have become tolerant of its absence. Millennials don’t want an all hands meeting once a quarter, they want leadership who is aware of their work in a way that’s relevant, supportive, insightful and effective. But leaders don’t show up. Research shows that as leaders are promoted through an organization they spend more time away from their teams, in their offices, outside their departments and outside their organizations. Research by Gallup shows that more than 50% of employees meet with their boss “less than monthly” but when millennials meet regularly with their managers, both productivity and engagement increases. I don’t have to tell you what happens to job satisfaction and retention numbers when employees are productive and engaged in their work.

You’re here for a paycheck and you can’t understand why they aren’t.

This generation believes in having a purpose and they want their efforts to be working toward said purpose. They don’t believe in the promise made to their parents that they can punch a time clock, stay off the boss’s radar and maybe they’ll get promoted and cruise to retirement. They aren’t interested in living a “check the box” life, they believe that if it doesn’t have a purpose or doesn’t help them grow then they shouldn’t be doing it. We admire this part of them, the part that’s willing to quit a job they hate even before they have another one lined up. But millennials aren’t really leaving for a better job with more purpose. They’re leaving because they THINK it’s a better job with more purpose. In his article “What to Ask the Person in the Mirror.” Robert Kaplan talks about the necessity to communicate vision clearly and often to help align employees efforts to the cause. For these employees, they have personal goals bigger than a 9-5. When interviewing a millennial, instead of asking “What qualifies you for this role?” try asking “How will this role help you reach your personal goals?” This generation will be a powerful force for the global economy and it makes sense to be aligned in the right direction.

You are resting on your laurels.

In a combination of the above, this generation thrives on growth, they may have seen more disruption in 10 years than was seen in 100 years of the industrial age. They are consistently being marketed to for new apps, products, businesses, and new ways to work and connect. This makes them expect more from everything around them. It also gives them a lot of perceived options should they become disenchanted with a particular selection. Basically, they’re willing to drop you like a buggy app and move on to something more promising. The idea that they can deem something obsolete or irrelevant has to be counter balanced with direct feedback from strong managers who are in the trenches vs managers who are playing office politics or sitting on cruise control.

Today, work is more complex and requires more in-depth thinking and involved guidance. Millennials thrive when leaders are 1) Aware of what is being worked on 2) Able to identify challenges and struggles and 3) Actively facilitating accomplishment through ‘controlled discomfort’. Leaders who fail to help their employees grow, or fail to grow alongside them, will lose credibility and eventually, their millennial talent.

Princesses and Paralysis

Millennials are perhaps the most scrutinized generation and they feel more pressure than ever before. But they see unconventional examples of success every day that builds a strong tendency to see solutions and believe in possibilities.

For my daughter, and for the millennial generation, we have to blend, what our experience tells us works with what might work to build a new vision of success. This will always require understanding how they see the world and getting involved in their causes while offering experiential guidance. This is how organizations stave off paralytic tantrums and avoid a workplace overrun with Millennial Princesses

Greer Method Complete Coaching provides one on one coaching for executives and business owners. Through expert coaches, habit locking technology, and proven processes we help leaders create, manage, and sustain personal and professional performance.

Jared J. Greer is the founder of Greer Method Complete Coaching. He is an executive coach, 6-time Ironman finisher, marathoner, ultra-marathoner, husband, and father of four.