The Next Generation of Leaders: 10 Plus 1 Ways to Support Your Millennial Managers

Diane Thielfoldt

Diane Thielfoldt is co-founder of The Learning Cafe (, a consulting firm dedicated to helping organizations develop, engage, and retain the talent of every generation. Also a workshop facilitator and an engaging speaker, she has educated hundreds of managers on issues involving the multigenerational workforce. She can be reached at

November 1, 2014

This year marks a generational tipping point: by the end of 2014, 50% of the world’s employees will be those born after 1980. This huge percentage includes many supervisors and managers—more than you might expect, since Millennials are assuming leadership roles earlier than any generation in the United States to date.

The leadership styles and traits of today’s Millennial managers will ultimately influence the culture, processes, and values of business—just as the Baby Boomers had tremendous impact on the culture of work for the past 40 years. But first, today’s youngest generation of management needs to get up to speed. While Millennial employees have many strengths, they may need guidance and support to develop into strong leaders.

To determine what specific support Millennial leaders and would-be leaders need, The Learning Café conducted an extensive Millennial Manager Research survey. Over 3 years, we used surveys, interviews, and focus groups to gather information from more than 400 Millennial managers and their managers, peer managers, team members, and human resources and business leaders. The participants represented all 4 workplace generations: Silents, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials; and came from corporations, not-for-profits, industry associations, and the federal government. The “10 plus 1” suggestions in this article are based on the data we collected, but first, let us look at the generation in question. Who are the Millennials?

A Snapshot of Millennials

There are 75 million Millennials in today’s workforce, all raised during the most child-centric time in our nation’s history. Millennials display a great deal of self-confidence, and at times may appear cocky to other generations, perhaps because of the shower of attention and high expectations they received from their parents.

Ongoing research by The Learning Café shows that Millennials perform best with some structure, especially younger members of the generation who are newer to the workplace. Millennials are becoming known for the fact that they do not see the value of paying their dues before they get a promotion or move ahead in their organization. They do not value job titles and position as highly as their older colleagues do, and they show less reverence for a position that is simply based on experience. Instead, they respect talent, knowledge, learning, and results.

Members of the Millennial generation want a relationship with their boss. They want their managers to be coaches, mentors, and even friends. They prefer to spend time with their direct supervisor and have plenty of interaction; they use that time to seek advice and get feedback on their performance. This may not mesh with Generation X’s love of independence and hands-off management style.

Although members of older generations may hold negative opinions of some traits and work habits of Millennials, the fact is that they are a hard-working, productive generation of workers and leaders, and they bring many essential skills and insights to their organizations. During our research, we came across one comment from a Millennial manager that nicely sums up our overall findings. This participant stated:

“Contrary to popular belief, we Millennials are not a group of entitled, narcissistic, technology-obsessed (well, maybe a little technology-obsessed) wave makers. We have been told we have the power to change the world—and we do—and we are changing the world (the green movement, the organic/healthy living trends, the quest to end modern-day slavery and human trafficking, marriage equality . . . the list goes on). We are a group of individuals who believe we can achieve more than ever imagined and are not afraid to risk everything trying to do so. We are unashamedly discontent with the status quo.”

Your Millennial leaders have value to offer in terms of positioning your company to be competitive in the immediate future. They will help you anticipate and design products and services specifically for history’s fastest growing marketplace—which they dominate. They will also help you attract and keep talent just like them to sustain your organization’s
competitiveness for years to come. In a previous survey, Millennial respondents listed their generation’s top strengths:

  1. “We are tech savvy.” They are digital natives who will fearlessly change how we do business.
  2. “We are effortless multitaskers.” Millennials can juggle several tasks at the same time. (However, they expect the same of others, which can be challenging.)
  3. “We are natural networkers.” They seamlessly connect, and can motivate, inspire, and connect at a personal level with each team member.
  4. “We are extraordinarily adaptable.” Millennials are flexible and handle changes in direction or plans without negative attitudes or nay-saying.
  5. “We are endlessly innovative.” Millennials think creatively and are always looking for ways to create new, simpler methods—and they do this in collaboration with others.
  6. “We are inclusive.” Millennial managers are sensitive to diversity; they embrace it and value it.
  7. “We are collaborative.” Millennial managers are all about cooperation and teamwork. For them, asking for help is an effective use of resources, not a sign of weakness.
  8. “We are action oriented.” They are go-getters—they work fast and get things done. Did anyone mention impatient?

Top 5 Challenges

In our research, Millennial respondents identified their main challenges as managers and leaders:

  • Managing Xer, Boomer, and Silent Generation team members—not necessarily because of the potential awkwardness of managing someone old enough to be your parent (or grandparent), but because each generation has its own work style, preferences, attitudes, and perspectives.
  • Gaining credibility and respect—it is obvious that a 20-something manager will need to prove to others that he or she is capable of doing the job!
  • Fundamental management skills—some managers have been promoted before they learn some time-earned skills, such as delegation. Imagine how tough this can make their day-to-day work.
  • Understanding and dealing with hierarchy and bureaucracy—Millennials need to overcome their impatience with some of the status quo aspects of business, which they are forced to participate in as managers.
  • Patience—speaking of impatience . . . Millennials prefer to move at the speed of light, and can have or cause problems when the rest of their team or organization does not keep up.

10 + 1 Ways You Can Support Millennial Managers

Given these challenges, Millennial leaders can use some training, guidance, information, and insights. The following list includes concrete tips and broad ideas on how you, your organization’s upper management, and human resources teams can provide what your youngest managers need to succeed; because when they succeed, your organization succeeds.

1. Check your assumptions at the door. Most of us are used to assuming that years of professional and organizational knowledge, along with years of life experiences, are necessary to elevate a successful employee to the level of mature leader. Although I will admit that it is dangerous to assume that every senior leader is an example of maturity and excellent people skills, we do tend to expect a level of wisdom from those with senior titles.

In cases where employees are promoted to leadership positions before putting in the years of experience, we still expect a certain level of maturity from them—more so than if they had not been promoted. It is natural for those in this position to have a disconnect between their professional abilities and their people skills—and they should not be expected to have the same level of skill as their older counterparts. Young managers are lacking certain experiences, and very likely received no management training to help them fill in the gaps.

Managers of these leaders might work with them to develop their personalized leadership style—demonstrating and reinforcing that their role goes beyond team “lead,” friend, or buddy.

The good news is that Millennials value work-related learning and coaching on “soft topics” as well as new business skills.

2. Coach on the fly. Millennials are eager to learn how to improve and hungry for feedback. The time it takes to share an elevator ride or walk to the coffeemaker is all it takes to share a performance-boosting insight, action step, or tip—or to praise a Millennial for a task well done. This approach may seem casual to you, but trust me—the Millennials you chat with are soaking up every word.

Managers should check in with Millennial managers more often than with more experienced managers. They value this, and will have questions or topics ready for discussion. When reviewing their role and decisions, provide situational context they may be missing. Discussing context, history, and factors surrounding a situation will make them more receptive to advice.

3. Give feedback on feedback. Millennials appreciate feedback, but may still be learning how to give and receive it appropriately. Encourage them to ask for feedback, and model the best behavior for giving and receiving feedback that you want them to replicate. They are learning on multiple levels, especially in performance feedback meetings. Not only are they learning what you have to teach them, but they are also watching how you manage them. When you commend them with, “Great job!” make sure you include what was especially on point, or what he or she should remember to do the next time a similar situation arises.

Managers should check in with Millennial managers more often than with more experienced managers. They value this, and will have questions or topics ready for discussion. When reviewing their role and decisions, provide situational context they may be missing. Discussing context, history, and factors surrounding a situation will make them more receptive to advice.

4. Adapt for learning style. Millennials tend to learn differently—after all, this is a generation that grew up in front of a computer screen. While older employees might have succeeded with books and manuals, this is a group that does very well with short training videos, a 60-second YouTube clip, a podcast, or infographics. Make the situation real for them with examples of what to say and how to say it. Scripts and role modeling help them see how a conversation can play out from beginning to end.

Organizations often do newer managers a disservice by mandating process and supplying forms without making sure Millennial managers know how to use them.

5. Bridge the generation gap. Help Millennial managers overcome this common challenge—and make your multigenerational workplace a happier one—by finding ways to help the different generations better understand each other. Millennials’ tendency to question authority, combined with their informal, team-based approach, can be hard for older generations to swallow. They can be seen as resistant toward existing systems or bureaucracy—which is basically true. All parties may need some guidance in finding common ground when it comes to change or lack of change.

6. Raise their visibility. According to Ernst & Young, only 5% of Millennials are perceived by their colleagues as being prepared to lead. Our survey research confirms this: Millennials need support in gaining credibility and respect in order to be accepted as leaders.

Your organization can take steps to bridge that gap. If you have identified top talent whom you want to develop into leadership positions, make sure they are known and accepted by the entire organization well in advance of their promotion. Leverage their energy and enthusiasm to learn. Consider assigning them powerful mentors in a variety of leadership roles—and make sure those mentors are actively sponsoring them for key, visibility-raising projects. Encourage your senior leaders to put Millennial names forward for appropriate opportunities.

Reverse the relationship: consider asking Millennials to act as mentors to senior leaders. Give Millennials the chance to share their fresh perspective and new learning as they are acquiring leadership and emotional intelligence insights from their own leaders. For instance, send them to conferences and industry meetings and have them report back the latest information to their mentor or team.

At the same time you are working to raise your top talent’s visibility internally, do the same for your clients and the industry at large, as you develop your Millennial managers into recognized key contributors.

Assign client-facing projects to them, introducing them to your customers and external industry partners. Have them work with your public relations team to write white papers and industry journal articles about some cutting-edge aspect of your company’s work. Train them in public speaking, and slowly build up their presentation experience so that they are ready for appropriate venues as they move up their own career ladder.

7. Get more flexible. Revisit your expectations of how and when work best gets done. Did you know that, according to research by Cisco Systems, on average 69% of Millennials believe that regular office attendance is unnecessary? And they may actually be right.

It is probably still important that you have your workplace staffed during specific hours. But it would also be a good idea to take a fresh look at how your work gets done and whether being present in one’s permanently assigned cubicle seat is really essential to productivity and effectiveness.

Millennials value work-life balance and try to ensure that everyone enjoys it; flexibility in work hours and locations can help support this value.

Incorporating different shifts, work-from-home arrangements, job sharing, and other options might be explored. Of course, you may return to the conclusion that a conventional 9-to-5 schedule works best for your company. But a fresh revisit of the question now and then will not hurt.

8. Provide basic business training. Be sure that your fast-tracked Millennial managers receive basic business training that they may have skipped over in their race to rise professionally. In addition to issues around organizing and prioritizing daily work schedules, you may need to impart some fundamental management skills, such as delegation, conflict management, or even how to conduct a performance review.

You may also discover that you need to address confidentiality, intellectual property, and proprietary concerns that you would have expected to be self-evident to any high-potential employee smart enough to be tapped for the fast track. Keep in mind that this is an information-sharing generation that characteristically feels more at home in a group situation. They are terrific at rallying a team around a company project and making everyone feel personally invested in group success. But they may be flummoxed to discover that the CEO is upset about their LinkedIn post before the public
relations group has readied the press release.

According to the gamification company Badgeville, 70% of Millennials have “friended” a manager or coworker on Facebook and are “friends” with at least 16 coworkers. This generation grew up using MySpace, then Facebook, FourSquare, SnapChat, Kickstarter, and crowd-sharing. They can wreck a company’s reputation or destroy their own careers with one inappropriate post.

Do not assume that Millennials will be mindful of what is secret and what is for public consumption. Be very explicit about what may be discussed outside the walls of the company, and be repetitive. As new people enter your workplace, everyone needs to hear the company policy about discretion and proprietary information again and again, as though they have never heard it before.

9. Invite innovation. Be open-minded—even if it means listening to the same ideas that were rejected 15 years ago. Every young and enthusiastic high-potential employee is motivated to put forward ideas for improving the business, just as every seasoned coworker has probably heard those ideas before. The exchange that concludes with, “We tried that 15 years ago; it did not work then and it will not work now,” has historically been a hard bump in the rites of passage for younger employees—but things are different now.

The idea that was a rejected 15 years ago might have been ahead of its time. Conditions have changed so much that the newly presented old idea may be just the right thing at the right time for moving the business forward.

Encourage your senior leaders to allow ideas to percolate a little bit. They are the ones most likely to have heard those old ideas before, so they are most likely to cut them off with the well-intentioned purpose of saving the company time. (Additionally, they might still be smarting from having their own youthful ideas rejected way back when. Young, confident, fresh Millennials presenting familiar ideas could inadvertently press some long-forgotten emotional buttons.)

10. Solicit their buy-in. Recruit Millennials’ endorsements for organizational initiatives and major decisions. Studies have shown that employees of all ages will accept a difficult business decision if they have been in on the decision-making process from the very beginning. As true as that might be across the generations, it is even more markedly so among the Millennials. As a group, they grew up accustomed to being included in many major family decisions. In school, they were typically focused on team and group consensus. They have carried this trait and expectation into the workplace.

Give your Millennial managers and front-line supervisors the opportunity to align themselves with critical initiatives. Then they can promote and influence with energy and enthusiasm. If they are left out of the process, their resentment may overpower their budding business judgment.

One final tip: Be “forever young.” Curiosity and continuous learning keep a corporate culture forever young, and a youthful culture attracts high-potential Millennials as well as high-performing Baby Boomers. A youthful culture encourages competitive spirit.

Unify everyone in the shared purpose of your company’s mission. Give your entire team opportunities to have fun together—especially in meaningful activities such as giving back to your community. Look for ways to dissolve the age group silos and you will take your company culture far in offering everyone a collegial, collaborative environment where everyone learns, grows, and recognizes your workplace as their best opportunity to achieve their full potential.

In Conclusion

Your Millennial leaders have value to offer in terms of positioning your company to be competitive in the immediate future. They will help you anticipate and design products and services specifically for history’s fastest growing marketplace—which they dominate. They will also help you attract and keep talent just like them to sustain your organization’s competitiveness for years to come.

The 20- and 30-something-year-old leaders in today’s workplace will guide their organizations—and the business world as a whole—into the future. Their unique traits and values will gradually affect the work styles of employees of all ages, much as the Baby Boomers shaped the way we have all worked for the past 40 years. I am predicting that organizations will shift toward a model that is inclusive and appreciative, and involves collaboration, teamwork, technology, a faster pace, and a learning-centered environment.

As this youngest generation continues to take the helm of businesses across the country, we will see many changes in culture, communication, climate, and career, including the speed at which employees move ahead. It is important to give your Millennial leaders (and emerging leaders) the support, guidance, and development they need to realize their promise and potential—because that potential impacts the future of all of us.


Generations in Today’s Workplace


Baby Boomers

Generation X