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January 21, 2015

Leading Millennials: 8 Essential Characteristics

The way we show up as a leader is directly informed by what we value, both personally and professionally.  Think about your leadership presence, from interpersonal interactions, to conversations and communications, to demeanor, work ethic, decisions and directives.  Under all of these lie a certain world-view and a particular set of values, which have been informed by many factors, including our generational context.

Our current workplace environment is primarily made up of three generational cohorts: Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials.

No one generational group is completely homogenous, of course, but each cohort generally holds a different set of underlying values.  As the Millennial generation is now the largest cohort since the Baby Boomers, and will continue to become an even more significant part of our workplace, let’s take a look at leadership qualities that will align most directly with what they value.  These eight qualities and characteristics will help you with leading Millennials on your team:

  • Exude Authentic Confidence and Competence — Related Value(s): Achievement.  Because Millennials value achievement and are confident in their ability to advance in their careers, they respond to leaders who exude confidence and competence.  A leader who appears weak, uncertain or wavering in their decisions may quickly loose the support of their Millennial team members, which diminishes the leader’s ability to leverage their energy, creativity, and work ethic to advance the organization’s vision. Keep in mind that confidence and competence must be expressed genuinely, as inauthenticity is a turnoff for 20 and 30-somethings. Confidence and competence also don’t involve taking a dictatorial approach, as Millennials values leaders who create a collaborative, diverse, and creative team environment, where ideas can be expressed freely.
  • Take Risk for Change — Related Value(s): Change; Possibility.  Millennials are oriented towards fluidity and change.  They are adaptable, and are attracted to the idea of possibility. For that reason, effective leaders of the Millennial cohort must illustrate that they are willing to take risks to enable change.  This generation has a higher tolerance for risk than their generational predecessors, and respect leaders who embrace risk for the sake of advancing a vision.  A sure way to loose this cohort is to let a situation or process stay in a “safe” status quo zone when everyone can sense a change is really what’s needed.
  • Persevere — Related Value(s): Competition; Resourcefulness.  The Millennial generation comes to the workforce with a wide variety of technological skills, which gives them a real sense that anything can be done with the right tool.  This resourcefulness is paired with a value of competition, as they’ve been put to the test as one of the most educated generations ever, and have grown up in an increasingly bigger and more connected world, making it ever more challenging to set themselves apart in the crowd.  They respond to leaders who show stubborn perseverance amongst challenges and set-backs, with a gritty sense of competition and a resourceful approach to getting things done.
  • Foster Fun at the Workplace — Related Value(s): Health.  With health as a value, Millennials appreciate leaders who can create a feel of fun in the workplace.  They are also used to a more casual approach to life and work, and are most comfortable in a relaxed and less-formal environment.
  • Be Accessible and Easy to Connect With —Related Value(s): Connection.  Although Millennials are used to being a “profile page” in the sea of online social networking sites, they ultimately value authentic connection to others.  Although digital networks may, on the surface, seem to facilitate more superficial relationships, they have actually promoted an uber-connected exchange of personhood. The online posts that are the most authentically unique, open, and vulnerable seem to resonate the most with one’s networks. For these reasons, Millennials prefer their leaders to be accessible, approachable, and easy to connect with.  The leader who is up on a pedestal and not connected to their team members will loose the buy-in of their Millennials.
  • Cultivate Diversity, Creativity, and Innovation — Related Value(s): Diversity; Self-Expression. Diversity is a norm for the Millennial cohort, and is highly valued when honored in their surroundings.  For a millennial to truly embrace the organization with which they are associated, they need to feel like their leaders cultivate a diversity of ideas, genders, and ethnicities.  A lack of diversity in their workplace creates a perception of not being progressive or being “stuck in the past.”  Similarly, Millennials value a sense of personal expression and individuality.  This generation is the most tattooed and adorned of any previous cohort.  They need to feel like there’s the freedom to be themselves and express their unique aesthetic.
  • Be a Mentor for Growth — Related Value(s): Achievement; Instant Gratification. Combine a Millennial’s desire for achievement with a culturally engrained expectation of instant gratification, and you have an employee that’s hungry for growth and advancement — often at a rate faster than their colleague generations think reasonable or possible.  As a leader, proactively mentor your Millennial team members and they’ll see you as a resource for their growth as opposed to a possible obstruction.  Facilitate conversations about where they hope to be in the future, what they want to achieve, what skills they need to learn, and how you and their current workplace can contribute to that larger aspirational career path.
  • Promote and Enable Work-Life Balance — Related Value(s): Health; Flexibility; Balance.  As much as work-life balance feels illusively hard to achieve, Millennials will appreciate leaders who make an effort to create space and flexibility for the personal aspects of life.  As long as clear expectations and boundaries are set, leaders can be successful at creating a more balanced approach for their employees.


  • Each generational cohort in our workplace comes with their own set of engrained values
  • When leading Millennials, you’ll be most effective if your approach resonates with the things they value the most
  • To lead and influence Millennials, appeal to their values of achievement, resourcefulness, change, creativity, innovation, connection, authenticity, and balance

Try This Out When Leading Millennials

  • Casually survey your Millennial employees on which of the above leadership qualities are most important to them
  • Use this list to open up a conversation among your entire team about generational differences, and about what communication approaches might help bridge the gaps between generations
  • Proactively engage in a mentoring conversation, discussion what they see for themselves in the future and how you can help them get there
  • Define clear boundaries and expectations around work approach and work hours, with the aim of also allowing flexibility, individuality and balance to emerge

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