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I didn’t know what I was getting into before spending five years on the front lines finding out what makes Millennials tick.
The research I read before I became director of the MBA class of 2009 at IMD, a Switzerland-based business school, didn’t prepare me to lead members of the digital cowboy generation, those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s.
We’ve all read plenty about Millennials before: They are used to being told they are good all the time, they are not ready for real-world setbacks, all they want is instant gratification, they lack loyalty. The list goes on.
While some of these characteristics have some truth to them, they can be said about previous generations as well. Millennials are digital versions of what 20-year-olds have been like since the Industrial Revolution.
Here are the six things I learned that today’s leaders need to know to really harness the power of Millennials:
They learn through experience. We don’t call them the “PlayStation Generation” for nothing. They grew up playing a lot of video games, without using instructions. They learned to make it to the next levels of these games by “dying” over and over again. They can be like that in their professional careers, too. They throw themselves into new experiences without a lot of planning and learn by failing.
They expect a leader to point out the pitfalls of certain actions—the way virtual cliffs do in a game, as well as the obstacles they may encounter—much like the virtual walls they run into during game-playing.
Their lives are nonlinear. The world has always been complex and volatile for this generation. They have witnessed the Asian financial crisis, climate change, Sept. 11, the war on terror and the 2008 financial crisis—all before they were established professionals. This generation has never seen the world as a safe and coherent place.
They will have nonlinear career trajectories and they know it. A lot of them will go back and forth between traditional employment and entrepreneurship.
For a large part of their lives, they have been reading on the Internet—focusing on one subject one minute, and something completely different the next. Previous generations learned in a more straightforward way by reading books from start to finish.
For leaders, this means that the Millennial generation is prepared for complexity. They don't know anything else. Older managers may have a hard time adapting to the new normal.
They are loyal … but to principles and not to people. This is where some of the accepted wisdom about Millennials comes into play. They appreciate personal development. They love new opportunities. But they will not follow your lead just because you are the boss.
Instead of trying too hard to make them loyal to your leadership or your organization, you should focus on developing and communicating the principles and purpose behind your organization’s work, whether it is a company, a nongovernmental organization or a government agency. Millennials need to know that they are working to make the world a better place. They believe that there is no success without sustainability for individuals, organizations, society and the environment. If you can convince them in an authentic way that what you are doing is principled, they will get behind you.
Their assumptions about privacy, boundaries and roles are fluid and permeable. This can be good and bad. We have all heard horror stories of young adults suffering consequences for what they post on social media, like that friend of a friend who got fired for calling her boss a jerk on Facebook.
But it can work in a positive way. Not submitting to conventional hierarchical structures allows Millennials to think creatively and to find business opportunities where others might not imagine there were any.
Leaders should encourage younger employees’ ability to think beyond the established way of doing things.
They believe power is distributed and control requires permission. In other words, Millennials don’t put up with bad bosses. They don't listen to authority if they don’t agree.
This might seem like a challenge, but in the long run, the sooner people stop accepting poor leadership, the sooner leaders will have to improve. Everyone will benefit.
The lesson here is: Don’t be a lazy leader. Make sure your Millennial employees understand why your organization and team are doing what they are doing. Don’t just say, “Do it because I said so.”
Also, don’t neglect leadership development. Keep investing in your leadership capabilities so you can motivate your Millennial employees.
They are not good at boring but necessary work. Millennials don't like to concentrate on boring tasks that lead to mastery and build character if those tasks don’t have clear benefits. To develop expertise and wisdom in any industry, people have to invest in nonglamorous grunt work to get to know their sector by heart. These types of experiences also help build patience to work through a problem until it’s solved.
Today’s senior managers should put in extra effort to show the digital cowboys why this hard work is important. Leaders need to make sure that entry-level Millennials know that having a deep understanding about the different aspects of an industry will help them in more senior roles later on.
Martha Maznevski is professor of organizational behavior and international management at IMD.
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