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Leadership Techniques That Connect With Millennials

Connecting with Millennials and the new workforce requires the ability to understand, empathize, and build a bridge.

millennialsHow to reach the next generation is the subject of many articles, conferences, and discussions in leadership circles. Millennials now make up the largest generation and will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025. Their purchasing power also commands attention.

As the CEO of a large technology organization, I have seen, heard, and read about this generation in all parts of the world. One conference was particularly memorable as the speaker hurled insult after insult at the generation: me first, entitled, lazy, disloyal, lacking an attention span, unrealistic expectations, disrespectful of authority. He was particularly frustrated at his inability to connect and motivate the younger members of the company. With that attitude, I think all of us can see why connection would be impossible. Respect is a two-way street, and his insinuations were unfair and unwarranted. I thought to myself, why blame the generation? My own thoughts often feel like a pinball in an arcade game, careening from wall to wall, searching for a winning point.

The younger workforce, I’ve realized, wants what everyone wants. They just may be more obvious about it. Connecting with the new workforce requires, as it always does, the ability to understand, empathize, and build a bridge.

“Business is more than profit and loss. Hitting revenue goals is not enough to achieve job satisfaction. Millennials crave a real purpose, the why behind it all.”

In order to reach the younger workforce, I suggest three leadership techniques:

  1. Engage with story.

Long before mobile devices and social media, before native advertising and artificial intelligence, we were spellbound by stories. Our brains are wired in such a way that we remember stories more than facts. Richard Branson said it well: “The art of storytelling can be used to drive change.”

That’s one reason that my new book, The Book of Mistakes: 9 Secrets to Creating a Successful Future, is in story form. One reader, who doesn’t particularly enjoy business books, said it felt like I was like a tricky parent, slipping hidden vegetables into delectable dishes. She enjoyed the story so much that she didn’t quite realize how many lessons she absorbed.

Stories are a powerful way to engage the next generation. The context and color provide rich opportunities for debate and discussion. Instead of presenting facts, tell the story behind them.

  1. Engage with purpose.

This is not unique to this generation, but Millennials are more emphatic about it. Business is more than profit and loss. Hitting revenue goals is not enough to achieve job satisfaction. Millennials crave a real purpose, the why behind it all.

That means letting them uncover their goals and dreams in a creative way. Be clear with the objective, but open with the solution.

The “why” behind corporate actions is important. I have found that the best “why” doesn’t come down from the CEO but is developed by individuals and teams. This bottom-up approach allows everyone to connect to the larger purpose in a more authentic way.

  1. Engage with activity.

Early in my career, one of the biggest errors I would make in communication was saying something once. Not wanting to insult others’ intelligence, nor make them feel like I’m pestering, I would send an email or say something in a meeting and then leave it there.

Another leader watched me closely and explained where I was going wrong. She said that I needed to stick to my message and repeat it often, in various methods and settings. It would show consistency and emphasize its importance. Then, she took it a step beyond. She explained that if something was really important, I should develop activities around it. That’s why off-site team meetings can be turning points. The culture of an organization is not what you say, but what you do. If I say that giving to the community is important, and leave it there, that isn’t enough. But if we engage employees in an event, wrapping presents for needy children or cleaning up a neighborhood for a day, that sends signals that cannot be replicated with a memo from the corporate office. Talking isn’t enough. Millennials especially watch actions.

These three steps are important to engage with the younger generation. I have found that every technique that works with Millennials also works with all generations. In fact, I credit the younger generation with demanding that leaders step up their game, get to the point, and put actions behind their words. I continue to learn from them and improve my own leadership because of their insight.


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