Countless articles claim Millennials are the key to business success -- even though few people appear to agree on exactly what a Millennial is (the general rule seems to be people born between 1982 and 2000).

What fewer people seem to agree on is how to lead Millennials since, according to conventional wisdom, Millennials tend to crave instant gratification, get bored easily, and hate the thought of working for any one company for longer than a year or so.

As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. As Inc. colleague Samuel Bacharach says:

"In a world in where the social contract between employer and employees has broken down (careers are no longer created within one company, but across several organizations), where hierarchies have been replaced by networks, where products have been replaced by solutions, and where agility has replaced bureaucratic coordination -- the way you lead has to change."

Millennials grew up in this "new world." They grew up seeing a network as more important than a hierarchy, thinking about solutions, not products, and expecting personal connections and individualized career paths.

And, hey: There's nothing wrong with those perspectives. Don't we all care more about relationships than about structures, more about solving problems than maintaining the status quo? Don't we all want to connect with other people -- and feel like we have as much control as possible over our lives?


So, as a small-business owner, how can you better lead Millennials, which means, of course, better lead every employee?

Start by focusing on four key things:

1. Create real connections.

Companies with workplaces that foster strong relationships among employees have far higher engagement rates than those that don't. This is especially true for Millennials, since they're already hyperconnected.

But how can you foster stronger relationships?

  1. Focus on face time. Hold regular meetings. Give constant feedback. Interact as often as you can, and create opportunities for employees to interact at work, whether on projects, cross-departmental teams, etc.
  2. Ask for input. And make sure that occasionally, the input focuses on you -- what you could do better and how you could be a better leader for that particular employee. 
  3. Create connections outside of work. Many Millennials see the workplace not just as a place to work but also as a platform for social activities. Friendships and connections that extend outside the workplace create greater engagement and teamwork within the workplace.

2. Provide a path for growth.

Generally speaking, Millennials expect a "tailored" experience, meaning they want to feel their career path has been created specifically for them.  

Granted, you may not be able to offer every employee a custom career path, but that's OK. Hear the employee out. Give them individual attention. Find ways to help them grow in an area they're interested in.

Why? If Millennials feel they are not making progress in their personal development, they'll become disconnected and seek other opportunities.

Whenever possible, get employees involved in projects that are not only mission-critical but also create opportunities for learning and development.

Do that, and you may find that retaining great employees -- and attracting them -- is easier.

3. Create a real sense of purpose.

Studies show that, like most, Millennials are happiest and most engaged at work when they feel they're making a difference.

By all means, focus on efficiency and effectiveness, but also on making work more meaningful. An easy way to do that is to let employees play to their strengths. A recent Gallup report found that Millennials, more than any other generation, ask, "Does this organization value my strengths and contributions?" Determine what each person does best and figure out ways they can do more of it.

4. See yourself as a coach.

Millennials work best in groups, not in a hierarchy. And they definitely prefer to be mentored rather than directly supervised.

An easy way to be a coach is to focus on empowerment. Explain a goal, give some basic structure, and then give the employee the freedom to come up with solutions. People care more when they feel responsible -- and when they feel they have the authority that comes with that responsibility.

Remember: Millennial employees aren't one size fits all, and accepting sweeping generalizations is dangerous because it allows us to think we're doing the right things when in fact we're not.

Instead, forget that one employee is a Millennial and that another isn't. Generational differences, while interesting, are only a small slice of what makes each individual different. To lead, you must first take the time to truly know the person and then adapt how you lead to the interests, needs, and goals of that individual.

That's how you lead every employee, because then the generation doesn't matter.