While teaching organizational behavior at Cornell University for more than 35 years, I've had the privilege of training numerous young people who have now moved on to be leaders in the private and public sector. Lately, both in my work as a faculty member and as a trainer in organizations, it has become apparent that leading Millennials presents a new challenge.

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down (careers are no longer created within one company, but across several organizations), where hierarchies have been replaced by networks, where products have been replaced by solutions, and where agility has replaced bureaucratic coordination--the way you lead has to change.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 see this new world as second nature. And if you want to attract, retain, and motivate Millennials, you must change your style of leadership.

Here are five things to remember when leading Millennials:

1. Get buy-in. Millennials have a capacity to be critically reflective. They have confidence, for better or for worse, in their own judgment. While some may see this trait verging on arrogance, it is something you as a leader have to deal with. Theirs is a world of "Yes, but..." They may agree with you, but they may also have a qualification, and they won't hesitate to tell you about it. Leading Millennials requires not only directing them, but also winning them over by pitching your ideas.    

2. Treat them as partners. In the traditional model of leadership, there is this belief that leaders need to give those they work with power. Millennials don't want you to give them the right to do anything. They don't want you to give them power. They want you to recognize their power. They want you to reach out to them as partners--celebrating and appreciating their talent. The very notion of empowering them by "giving" them the right to do something is abhorrent to them. What they want is recognition through partnership--not trickle-down empowerment.

3. Focus on the team, not the company. Organizational brands means less and less to young workers. Whether it's Goldman Sachs, GE, or your own company, it is likely that Millennials will not identify with the organizational brand, but rather they will affiliate with their team of coworkers. Listen to how Millennials speak. You will hear them make reference to this ("my team," "our team," etc.). So focus on their team affiliation as a way of motivating and retaining them. 

4. Create intrapreneurial opportunities. In order to retain and lead Millennials, you have to challenge them. And the best way to do so is to involve them in complex problems or projects. They are driven by the search for solutions. Indeed, one of the defining traits of Millennials is their ability to think divergently and come up with precise solutions. Give them a space to experiment and fail--and you will see that it will breed success and loyalty. 

5. Help bolster their résumés. Millennials understand that it is unlikely that they will finish their career in one organization. They well know that they may lose their jobs during the next major downsizing. Or they may leave to join other companies. Instead of ignoring or denying this, celebrate it. Work with them to enhance their skills, to enrich their résumés, and to expand their experience. Make it clear to them that, even outside the organization, you will be their partner. They will return this loyalty.

In all my years of teaching, I've been sensitive to the clichés that are tossed around about young people, but the current clichés are a bit overwhelming. For the past few years, I've worked in New York City and Brooklyn and have learned that beneath the veneer of the youthful hipster, there is an entrepreneurial energy that can be harnessed. And, if an old guy like me can do it, you can too.

Published on: Oct 15, 2014
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