How to Lead, Connect and Engage with Millennials

Approximately 30 grey Caribbean reef sharks are circling closer and closer to us.

They’re about to teach me the Golden Rule of Leadership:

“Anything is possible in the right environment.”

I’ve successfully applied this principle everywhere in my life and find it’s the key to connecting and engaging with others, especially millennials. But the sharks don’t care about principles; right now they’re deliriously intoxicated by the juicy bouquet of blood and rotten fish oozing out of my plastic treasure chest.

I’m about to try something that only a few of the most expert shark wranglers have ever done before; naturally paralyze, or in science slang, tonically immobilize, one of the 12’ sharks by lightly caressing its snout with a chain mail glove.

My dive buddy Graham Cove is one of those shark experts. He explains that success will only be possible if we do everything right- and most importantly create the right environment for them.

Graham speaks to me through the underwater communication system, “We don’t have too much time down here. We need to get things moving.”

I start dishing out chum- lots of it, and in just a few moment the sharks become electrified. The scene rapidly descends from order to complete chaos. We are now in the middle of a shark feeding frenzy.

Graham yells over, “Way too much Ascanio. We need to settle things down.”

A few minutes pass and the sharks are calm again. So calm that they almost seem to have completely disengaged. I reach into the fish crate and grab the sawed off head of a barracuda. It’s the perfect treat to lure one of these toothy beauties back to me.

This time I pace myself and sense their rhythm and dish out just the right amount to achieve Goldilocks conditions. The sharks now glide in for a morsel. But each time I get near their head they bolt away.

I then hear “Ascanio, I’m running low on air. We need to head back to the boat soon.”

Just as my hopes start vanishing the shark in the photo above senses the treat in my hand and drifts over. As she takes the bait I’m able to gently rub her nose and in less than two seconds she falls onto my lap- completely unconscious. I lean down and embrace her, savoring this once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Success that day was possible because the environment was perfect. The same is true for companies with the highest employee engagement levels; their managers are experts at chumming the corporate waters and creating those goldilocks conditions for their millennials. They understand that yesterday’s work environment is no longer enough to attract top talent; millennials play by a different set of rules.

I’m not alone here: a recent report by TINYpulse, and several experts I recently interviewed for a book I’m writing on “Engaging Millennials” seem to agree. I asked them, “Why are companies struggling to engage millennials and what do you suggest?” Although no one proposed waving the upper torso of a dead barracuda at them, the report and interviews clearly show there are four things millennials need if they are to be engaged at work:


If your millennials feel they are not making progress in their own personal development they will soon become disconnected and seek opportunities elsewhere. “Millennials are rejecting traditional rules about career development and work culture,” explains Ketti Salemme, Senior Communication Manager at TINYpulse. “Rather than wait years for a promotion, millennials are looking for fast growth.”

Joe Redmond concurs. “They want to be promoted at an accelerated rate (not satisfied with the traditional 3–5 years approach).” He suggests that managers should get their millennials involved in projects that foster experiential learning and development. Besides creating the engagement and development needed to retain your existing millennials, you’ll also be attracting new ones!


By now, most of us are well aware that companies with workplaces that foster strong friendships among their employees have far higher engagement rates than those that don’t. This is especially true of millennials who are hyper-connected to begin with. Here are 5 tips to better connect with them:

Give them more face time at work. Regular meetings and continuous feedback boost engagement and performance. Besides, millennials crave constant interaction and won’t settle for a laissez-faire boss who only meets with them occasionally. Schedule weekly meetings with your millennials and get their feedback as well. Ask them “How can I be a better manager?” Then be sincere and take their advice.

Engage them outside of work. Alim Erginoglu, an employee engagement consultant at Towers Watson makes a great point: “Successful companies connect with their millennials not only during working hours but outside of work as well. Millennials see work not an only a place you go in and earn money to live, but to socialize, innovate, learn and enjoy. In a way, they amalgamate their life with work and as long as they can do that they feel engaged. Work does not limit their life but is a part of it.”

Keep it real. Another way to connect with your millennials, is by creating greater trust- and that starts by being more authentic and transparent. Great leaders don’t stress about how they might be perceived and neither should you. Forget about who you think you should be, and just be yourself. As Karl Moore In a recent Forbes article points out: “The better you are at being an authentic leader, the more your millennial employees will appreciate you.” Like our Caribbean reef shark friends, millennials can detect a drop of inauthenticity in an olympic sized pool.

Be vulnerable. If authenticity gains the trust, respect and appreciation of your millennials, vulnerability amplifies it. Millennials are the most educated generation ever, and they know we all have the same fears of not being good enough, smart enough or worthy enough. Ever wonder if Kim Kardashian’s authenticity and rise to galactic stardom had anything to do with each other?

Dare to care. The best managers connect deeply with their millennial employees by paying attention to what’s important to them. Nicole Cunningham, Sr. Manager of Employee Experience at Knot Standard, and a millennial herself feels that managers are struggling to engage millennials because “They are failing to focus on what motivates the individual. Although millennials enjoy working in groups and working collectively with the team, they are individually motivated.” Become a master listener and get to the root of what matters.

“Find out what makes Millennials tick and then capitalize on it,” says Jonathon Villaire, an Employee Engagement Leader at AIG. Carve out some time each week to grab lunch or a coffee with each of your direct reports. Ask them what they enjoy doing outside of work and get to know them personally. As you build a meaningful relationship with them, they will give more of themselves.


Doing meaningful work gives our lives purpose and studies show that millennials are happiest and most engaged at work when they feel they are making a difference. There is a clear disconnect between companies and their millennials, so here’s what you can do:

Bridge the gap. Employee engagement expert Lisa Morris at North Highland points out: “I believe the challenge comes down to employees wanting a work experience that is valuable and meaningful to them as individuals. Organizations on the other hand are focused on efficiency and effectiveness.” So keep looking for ways to make their work feel more meaningful- better yet, ask them!

Focus on their strengths. A recent study by Gallup found that millennials, more than any other generation, are asking, “Does this organization value my strengths and my contribution?” Unless you’re Michael Jordan playing minor league baseball, people are happiest and most productive when they are doing what they do best. Find out what each of your millennials excels at then figure out how they can do more of whatever they’re naturally great at.

Align what they’re doing with what’s important to them. Once you know their values its easy to connect what they care about with what they’re doing. Earlier this year, while on a coaching call with a senior Fortune 1000 executive, she confided that she was feeling super disengaged; she was dreading having to spend the next day or so ensuring that a very important spreadsheet was error free. Knowing she cared for her coworkers I simply asked her, “How will your team benefit once you’ve meticulous scrutinized this spreadsheet?” As soon as she realized how her work would impact her team, her energy skyrocketed and she felt more engaged.

Acknowledge their impact. Make sure you publicly acknowledge the contribution your young reports are having on the organization. “Millennials expect to be recognized much more frequently than members of previous generations,” says Mark Fulford an MBA professor at the University of Central Missouri. Recognizing, praising and celebrating their successes whenever possible will pay huge dividends in the long run.


If managers are to succeed at engaging their millennials their leadership style needs to become more coach-centric. The authoritative, command-and-control style of management might’ve worked with traditionalists, but won’t stand a chance with millennials.

“They view authority differently,” explains Joe Redmond, a director of employee engagement at Olympus Surgical Technologies. “They tend not to want managers. So have them participate in cross functional teams.” Millennials work great together and getting them to collaborate with each other is a huge step towards getting them engaged, and according to TINYpulse coworkers and peers are the #1 reason why employees feel engaged in their workplace.

Engagement also means empowerment, something that is imperative with millennials. Disempowered employees are also disengaged employees and will cost you and the organization more than an occasional headache. Become a great coach and empower your millennials by helping them become more confident, asking for their input on important issues and supporting them whenever possible.


Successfully engaging your millennials is a lot like engaging those Caribbean reef sharks; you’ll need to create the perfect work environment. Dianne Crampton, founder of TIGERS Success Series sums it up best: “The best managers are actively interested in their employees, learn about their needs and wants, and give their millennials immediate in-time feedback and coaching.”

Here’s the bullet list you can take away to better lead, connect and engage your millennials:

  • Make sure they have a lot of opportunity to grow as leaders
  • Connect with them in and out of the office
  • Create more opportunities for them to collaborate with their coworkers
  • Their work is important and makes a difference
  • Recognize and celebrate their work as often as possible
  • And finally, coach, empower and support them whenever you can.

Ultimately, I think QK Toralba, Employee Engagement Manager at Acquire BPO and himself a millennial sums it up best: “Letting employees feel that they are valued, recognized and that there is an opportunity for growth are the biggest factors in having an engaged workforce.”

I really hope this article resonated with you. You can catch the video of my shark hypnosis here. Finally, I crave feedback so please leave me a comment below. And if you can please like and share it. Thanks so much. #BigIdeas

About the Author

Ascanio Pignatelli is passionate about helping successful leaders unlock the full promise, energy and creativity of their millennials. Ascanio is an award winning speaker, workshop facilitator, coach, and author of the forthcoming book “Engaging Millennials.” His company E3 Solutions helps executives improve their leadership and communication skills to create more engaging workplaces. Call Ascanio now to book your complimentary strategy session at 310.913.2313.