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Four Better Ways to Lead Millennials in Today’s Knowledge Economy


multiethnic-millennials-scrolling at a cafe

Millennial management is a hot topic right now, as it should be. The workforce is in flux and many organizations are struggling to adapt their strategies to a new dynamic. As a millennial leader and performance keynote speaker, I can’t tell you how many times a senior leader has pulled me aside after a presentation to ask… “Matt, how the hell can we motivate millennials?”

“Stop doing what you’ve always done…” is my standard reply.

They don’t usually like my answer.

More than most I’m uniquely positioned to answer that question. I’m a millennial. I manage and lead a diverse team as President at On Target Living. I’ve also worked closely with my dad Chris who is a classic baby boomer.

As a result, I can speak from personal experience managing millennials, being a millennial, and also knowing how to navigate handling older generations. It can be hard to articulate something that you just ‘do’…but since it’s my job to write, talk, and educate others here’s my observations and a few thoughts on how I’d go about more effectively managing myself (and my peers).

Millennials now comprise the largest share of today’s workforce. This generation grew up in an era defined by instant access to practically everything, automated workflows and hundreds of different ways to solve the same problem. They don’t want to be told how to do something over and over again – they want to show you a better, faster way to solve a problem. This means that traditional “command-and-control” style corporate structures, with layers upon layers of processes, rules and regulations only stifle creativity and impede innovation. Autonomy and meaning are the new engines that drive this next generation.

Plus, consider the time crunch and the technology explosion.

We are expected to manage ourselves more than ever before. Not just managing our time, but the overall strategy and execution of what we think are the most important goals for our respective roles. In many industries, you will work on 15-20 different projects per year composed of blended teams across the organization. This requires self-management with a major emphasis on the self. If we aren’t being ordered what to do, how do we know what to prioritize and commit our time and effort toward?

The need for effective self-leadership is paramount in today’s increasingly decentralized, flat corporate structures. How do we engage and motivate this new generation of independent agents? How can we focus all of that output toward achieving strategic objectives?

Millennials crave meaning and will work tirelessly toward a purpose they believe in. Today’s leaders shouldn’t define success by hitting quarterly goals or speeding up production. The strength of a successful manager is building authentic relationships with each team member and connecting the extrinsic goals (profit, market share, project completion, etc.) to their intrinsic goals (affecting positive change, higher mastery, personal growth).

Here’s my best advice…

1. Lead from a meaningful purpose

Profit alone is a powerful goal, but unless you go to great lengths to humanize it, don’t expect profit to be a passionate motivator. Every organization needs to humanize their purpose as much as possible in order for it to resonate with every level of the organization. My company is a financially successful enterprise, but that’s not what inspires our staff to come to work each day. Our true purpose is fortified each time we receive a handwritten letter of appreciation from a client or guide someone toward achieving a better life. I don’t have to tell my people what to do on a daily basis. I set the standards and goals I want to achieve and show them how powerful that can be. That’s what drives a great organization – tying the mission statement to self-motivation.

2. Lead with the team and the individual in mind

Let’s establish this right off the bat. Managers aren’t the experts. Their job isn’t to micro-manage and nitpick at the day-to-day tasks. Their “why” is clearly communicating the overall mission statement and co-creating actionable goals that each of their direct reports works to achieve. Most people spend considerable time and effort hiring the right people for specific positions.

My suggestion is simple: Empower them to be subject matter experts and allow them to take ownership. Don’t control them – collaborate with them.

Empowerment is the secret that unlocks engagement, creates loyalty and allows a group of self-centered individuals to collaboratively crush it.

3. Promote mastery, foster deep work, and pass off the superficial

We all want to achieve some level of mastery in our work. It’s an intoxicating feeling when you’re in a groove and perform flawlessly for hours on end. The satisfaction and pride you feel in the finished product is more valuable than any financial reward.

Based on executive coaching sessions conducted by Bruce Vincent and Steve DeBree of The New West Institute, managers tend to underestimate how much their employees value mastery. They assume that they are primarily motivated by advancing up the ladder and financial reward. Once managers start asking more pointed questions during monthly meetings with their staffs, they begin to discover more creative ways to motivate them:

1.What creative solutions do you have for solving this problem?

2.What redundant/inefficient work can we remove from your workflow?

3.Can we translate your methods to another department or section of the company?

4.What additional training can we facilitate for you to build the core competencies for this role?

Your team wants to evolve and grow their skill sets to enhance their performance and exceed expectations. A manager’s job is not to control the process. The best bosses find creative ways to augment workflows and best utilize the myriad expertise at their disposal. There’s more than “one true way” to solve your organization’s biggest problems – so start coaching up your team instead of ordering them around. Start asking them how you can help them do their best work!

4. Shake things up when your team is stuck, do something unexpected

There’s no sense of accomplishment if you don’t know how far you’ve come. Also consider that most of the time the end result, the numeric goal, isn’t directly controllable. Instead, most wins are the delayed response to a bunch of actions a person takes. The key to motivation for millennials is focusing less on the outcome and more on the journey. Highlight, obsess, benchmark behaviors vs outcomes.

But if you find yourself with a team stuck in a rut, here’s a few ways you can use the unexpected to shock them into new thinking and new action.

1.Surprise your team with a field trip – Just getting out of the office and spending time with co-workers in a fun environment can build stronger bonds and break down silos.

2.Give your team a day off – We all know how valuable an extra day off can be to recharge and refocus toward knocking the next project out of the park.

3.Set up a face-to-face meeting with the end user – Haven’t you always wanted to know how a recent product launch or partnership has benefited the client? Give employees a means to see the fruits of their labor.

Charts and graphs are a great way of visualizing metric progress, but the type of progress we’re talking about is measuring the pulse of your team. Take the time to chat informally with them about what they’re working on and how much progress they’ve made. The answer may not be what you want to hear, but it’s what you need to hear. That’s the true nature of collaboration – trusting one another for honest feedback about what is and what is not working. Both parties feel like they are working on equal footing if they know they are on the same page about what’s been accomplished and where the finish line is.

All great organizations are driven by collaborators, not employees.

A leader guided by these four principles will rarely go astray. Your organization will be better equipped to handle fluctuating market conditions because you can seize the immense opportunity change brings. You can start manufacturing solutions instead of just finished goods. You will attract the best talent because you believe in creating purpose and know they will be invited to help bring it to life. Not only will your organization start becoming the very definition of the word (people with a purpose, remember?), but it will be teeming with creative collaborators who are firing on all cylinders and relish the journey on which they are about to embark.

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