Run for the Hills! The Millennials Are Coming!

By Tyler Palko

The nature of the work force is changing, and if your leadership development tools aren’t, as well, your company will struggle.

The media spin and “expert” opinion pieces on this topic are a bit ridiculous. If you regularly read articles about Millennials, it sounds like the entire generation is an epidemic that needs to be cured. Millennials aren’t outcasts—they represent 34 percent of the work force, now the largest segment of all generations.

Like it or not, Millennials will soon be running the very businesses that exist today. It would benefit all parties involved to find ways to purposefully prepare them for the future instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Failing to prepare Millennials will be the biggest economic threat to any business’ future success. Simply put, poor performance among Millennials (and all employees) is a reflection of leadership.

Millennials are arguably the most educated and talented generation in the work force, yet there seems to be some disconnect on how to cultivate that talent. According to an Aon Hewitt study, 43 percent of Millennials will be actively looking for other opportunities within the year. One of the biggest reasons is the lack of personal development/career direction. They want to be developed. They want to learn something that they can actually apply to their position and use to add value to the company.

So how do you develop your talent and give them the career direction they need to add the most value to your company? Gone are the days of the fast-paced onboarding process, which often includes some sort of four-week crash course of the material, a couple of online exams, and then a stint shadowing a tenured employee in the real work environment. By then, they should be ready to hit their numbers, right? Wrong! This practice is outdated and simply does not work.

Leadership isn’t rocket science. It’s actually pretty simple if you break it down. By definition, leaders have followers, and if you can’t adapt your leadership to your followership, you won’t be a leader for long. Leadership is simple, but it’s not easy, and leading a 21st-century work force requires 21st-century tactics.

If you lost the top 20 percent of your work force today, could you still compete with the remaining 80 percent? Top performers are hitting retirement age and often have one foot out the door.

The bench strength simply isn’t there. Poor development of emerging leaders is the biggest economic threat to most companies.

So here are some steps that can help you attract, retain, and develop your emerging leaders and ultimately get them to perform at a world-class level:

1. Challenge your talent right out of the gate. Too often, we see managers and supervisors fail to challenge their emerging leaders. There is a tendency to think they are not ready. Don’t be afraid to offer meaningful opportunities and difficult assignments. Explain why the assignment is critical and where it fits into the big picture. Then, tell them what you want to be done, but not how to do it. Offer your support and let them surprise you.

2. Get your young talent a coach. Millennials from a very young age had the opportunity to work with an outside set of eyes and ears.  Internal mentors are fine, but it takes a coach to really get your talent to the next level. More often than not, direct reports and bosses can’t and won’t serve that purpose.

3. Work to amplify your emerging leader’s skill set. Do not break them down and try to rebuild. Too often, we see businesses trying to make their emerging talent “do it my way,” or even worse, say things like “this is what worked for me.” This approach is often used even if it destroys or works against the emerging leader’s natural talent.

4. Encourage your talent to ask questions. Asking for the answers isn’t always a bad thing. A 21st-century coach needs to be able to offer solutions and direct people to a definitive answer. We often see managers who believe their people are trying to take shortcuts by asking for an answer. Many times just the opposite is true. 

5. Offer both positive and developmental feedback. In the 20th century, feedback was only considered to be constructive criticism. In the 21st century, feedback needs to be real-time, and both positive and developmental. I am always amazed when people who believe experience is the best teacher turn around and criticize failed attempts and rarely if ever offer any positive reinforcement.

As a leader, you’re not going to hire a 30-year-old with 30 years of experience. Hire for competency and fit, and then develop them based on 21st-century methods. Baby Boomers leave the work force possessing many years of industry knowledge, and emerging leaders covet this knowledge for their development. Creating an intentional way to transfer this knowledge while incentivizing both sides will greatly benefit the growth and future success of your company.

About the author

Tyler Palko is director of leadership development in the Overland Park office of Solutions 21.
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