Leadership Lessons We Can and Must Learn from Millennials

If you'd prefer to skip to The Bottom Line, please scroll all the way down. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy the entire post.

I don’t profess to be an expert on millennials. I am just another baby boomer who has been blessed with two millennial children, and I have found the experience of our journey through life to be educational, though perplexing at time. My son and daughter have consistently opened my eyes to things that I didn’t know that I didn’t know and learning from them has been one of the greatest joys in my life. I am fascinated by the level of unapologetic clarity and certainty they have about their preferences, something that I don’t remember experiencing at their age, or since. 

It occurs to me that while so many of us seem to be obsessed with figuring out the differences between millennials and the previous generations, we may have overlooked that millennials want exactly what’s important to the rest of us. Judging by the volumes of research that have been done and articles that have been written on the topic, a great majority of us are trying to “crack the code” on millennials so we can survive and thrive in this new world where they will soon be the majority, when in fact what sets millennials apart from the previous generations is not so much what’s important to them, but the fact that they aren’t willing to sell out. 

I spend a great deal of my time thinking, reading, speaking, and writing about leadership effectiveness and culture transformation. As I reflect on what the millennials want in the workplace, it is clear to me that creating their preferred cultural attributes and doing away with some of the caveman management practices of the old days would do wonders for the rest of the workforce, regardless of which generation they belong to. 

Here is just a partial list of considerations that the rest of us have ignored or tolerated for too long that, thankfully, millennials are forcing our hand to begin to reconsider:

  • It is important that the company we work for or do business with is not using slave labor or exploiting poor people somewhere in the world to produce their products! This is not a new idea but one that we have not been willing to deal with. If we were to set our greed aside and do the right thing, we may suffer a short term setback vs. the profit projections that counted on the exploitation of the less privileged, but then we would create a massive shift in being socially responsible and a force for the good in this world.  Who wouldn't want that?
  • We don’t want to be told what to wear to work when we are perfectly capable of using our own judgment. I understand that some of us have a fear that people may just show up to work in inappropriate attire, but think about it… Do we really want to establish all kinds of rigid rules to protect ourselves from the 0.5% who will use bad judgment? Isn’t it better to trust the 99.5% to use good judgment and address the few issues that come up?
  • We want more flexibility in our hours, or whether we have to travel to the office even though we can get part of our work done from home. Granted, there are some parts of our work that require our physical presence in the same place at the same time as the rest of the team, but there is so much flexibility that can be exercised in giving employees freedom to get their work done in a way that fits their lifestyle. An employee who is trusted to get their work done without us having a need to keep an eye on them is so much more committed and productive.
  • We want to be informed, coached, and mentored rather than be kept in the dark and told what to do. There was a time when employees were referred to as “hands,” but in today’s economy, competitive advantage no longer comes from having a bunch of employees keeping their head down and just doing what they are told. Competitive advantage comes from creating a culture where employees are given information and the autonomy to develop solutions and create transformation. Bosses who have not evolved to being servant leaders are in for a rude awakening as their management antics will not work in the new economy.

These are just a few examples of what leaders must take notice of when it comes to the lessons they can learn from millennials. At first glance, some of these topics may not be the most important characteristic we would think of for our job, our boss, or our work environment, but could that be because the rest of us have figured that we can’t have our cake and eat it too, so we might as well live with what we have?

Baby Boomers, and to some extent Gen-Xers, are considered more loyal to their employers and more tolerant of deviations from their ideals. They are more likely to grin and bear it rather than leave. I am not suggesting there is no merit or value in the virtues of those generations. I am suggesting, though, that this tolerance has cultivated and perpetuated some level of complacency in some leaders, which has led to so many workplace cultures being solely focused on compliance and not fully earning the employee’s commitment. The staggering statistics suggesting that only 30% of employees are actively engaged show that the “benevolent dictatorship” management style that is still far too common these days is not producing the kind of results or satisfaction that a more progressive “servant leadership” approach could. 

So while the rest of us have settled for something far short of our ideals and lowered the bar on the kind of vibrant and empowering cultures we expect at our workplaces, millennials are raising the bar and sending a clear signal to their leaders that they are not willing to compromise what’s important to them, and for that I am grateful. I have experienced my share of frustration, wishing the millennials in my life would think a little more like me, but I am convinced that if the rest of us set our minds to it, there is a lot we can learn and apply from millennials that, in the end, will create a much more satisfying career and life for all employees.

The question is not how to “crack the code” to retain millennials and keep them happy. It is, “How can we learn from millennials who are not willing to compromise what is important to them, and use the insights we get to guide us in creating a culture of empowerment and engagement?”

The Bottom Line:  

The rapid rate of change has created a chasm of generational differences between millennials, their older siblings, and their parents than any other generation. There is no denying that there are differences in how baby boomers and millennials move through the world. However, when it comes to employees’ wishes and desires for what they would like to see in their boss, the company they work for, and their workplace culture, the unapologetic and uncompromising clarity that millennials bring is a wonderful and much needed reminder of what the rest of us would also appreciate but have settled for living without for too long. Today’s leaders would do well to use the insights they learn by working with millennials to guide them in creating a sustainable culture of empowerment and engagement.

Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! As always, I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at amir@theghannadgroup.com.

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