Millennials Want Mentors, Not Managers
Millennials want leaders who inspire, challenge and value them.
A couple of weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with a former colleague of mine — we’d become fast friends after working together at a company that was recently acquired by Twitter. My friend, we’ll call him Andre, is ambitious and driven — he believes in nourishing the mind and body, in building a life that has a higher purpose, and in achieving greater meaning from his work.
He’s a classic millennial (people born between the 1980s and 2000s) — he’s hungry to learn and grow, and is driven to work hard for his success and personal development. He wants to be inspired; he aches to feel fulfilled.
After a year at his previous IT job, Andre called it quits. He’d felt discouraged by archaic corporate culture norms that dictated rules and constraints, and described his workplace as “suffocating, outdated and overtly hierarchical”. His boss had been a micro-managing bully, threatened horrific consequences if deadlines weren’t met, and treated his employees as resources to achieve corporate ends.
Andre felt he wasn’t treated with respect or recognized for his contributions. He wasn’t growing professionally and saw no reason to stay in a toxic workplace setting that demotivated and disenfranchised him.
Millennials, like Andre, view their work as a central part of their lives, not as a distinct activity to be “balanced” . They thrive on purpose-driven challenge and fulfilment.
They want to meet new people, learn new skills and find a deeper meaning in their work. They want mentors who inspire and challenge them, who guide and coach them, who instill in them a greater sense of purpose.
Millennials are often viewed with antipathy
For years, there has been a visible generational bias — bordering on antipathy — against millennials. It’s impossible to get through any form of media content without encountering some misguided, and often exaggerated diatribe against them — that they’re a lazy, attention-seeking, entitled and narcissistic generation, that they require constant coaching, incessant feedback, and round-the-clock reassurance.
This prognosis is unwarranted. If anything, this need for fulfillment, this yearning for a higher purpose has more to do with uncertainty than it does with narcissism — millennials just want some guidance, a sense of direction. Why?
Millennials have come of age during a time of great economic, environmental and geopolitical uncertainty— the Syrian War, the Great Recession, Brexit, climate change. This coupled with rapid technological advancements leaves them disillusioned with existing institutions and established ways of working.
Moreover, they are the most educated, informed and tech-savvy generation in history. Consequently, competition is rife and they feel the pressure (especially via social media) to set themselves apart.
Millennials are conditioned to expect feedback — they were raised to succeed, to distinguish themselves, to exceed expectations. Right from when they could talk, they were exposed to structure and measuring systems, incessant coaching, and systematic feedback. It’s only natural they expect this to continue in the workplace.
In a joint survey by Oxford Economics and Harvard, 1400 millennials confirmed they want more feedback from their managers —in particular, they want it on a monthly basis (see chart above).
Andre’s story got me thinking — at the ripe old age of 25, I can count on one hand the number of peers I know who are still working for the same employer they joined upon graduating college. Contrast that with my parents’ and grandparents’ generations — they spent decades working for the same employer.
A Gallup report showed that 21% of millennials have changed jobs within the past year — more than thrice the number of non-millennials.
The composition of the global workforce is undergoing a seismic shift — millennials will soon constitute more than half of the world’s working population. If companies today want to attract and retain talent, they need to start thinking about mentoring their employees. They have to start investing in their employees’ growth and personal development if they want any chance of retaining them.
The Millennial Survey by Deloitte reveals that 71% of millennials will leave a position within two years if they feel their skills are not being developed.
Employers can draw and engage top talent if they evolve to meet millennials’ needs. To attract young employees, a company must offer them an inclusive, collaborative work environment where they have the space to grow and develop.
A PwC study found that 65% of millennials accepted their current job due to opportunities for personal development. Additionally, they rank mentorship and training among the top three factors in choosing where to work.
The traditional office setting where feedback and/or constructive criticism is provided at fixed intervals i.e. annual reviews, isn’t going to fly anymore. Younger employees prefer immediate feedback with regular support and guidance.
So how can companies usher in this new era of mentoring to appeal to (and retain) talented and dedicated employees? Here are three ways to get started:
The emerging trend in leadership is a manager who guides, not commands. Create a supportive work environment where employees can have direct connections with management, regardless of title or seniority — this goes a long way in building trust and understanding.
Hierarchy and bureaucracy are out. Open communication and collaboration are in.
The new generation seeks out inclusive workplaces that eschew the rigid constraints of bureaucracy and embrace collaboration.
At my current job, I’m able to speak freely with my superiors and team leaders without feeling intimidated — all while respecting employer-employee boundaries. I’m able to openly (and respectfully) express opinions and ideas, despite being a junior-level employee. My seniors often ask for my viewpoints on important matters and include me in high-level discussions.
Knowing I have my management’s support and encouragement makes me feel valued — I’m far more engaged and driven to work hard.
Millennials want responsibility — they want the chance to lead, to feel valued, to know they’re not just cogs in a machine. So, give them a seat at the table.
Millennials are driven by the pursuit of passion and development in their work — they want to develop and hone their skills. They want to feel supported in order to be more efficient and proficient. To them, personal development is a top priority.
Give them measurable goals and hold them accountable for achieving them. Teach them to take responsibility for their actions. Do not guilt-trip or threaten them with consequences if they make mistakes — that will only backfire. Instead, give them the confidence to fix those mistakes and provide them with the support to do so.
Millennials crave both independence and instruction — it’s a fine line. They don’t respond well to being told what to do and value meaningful two-way relationships built on conversation and dialogue. Providing them with the opportunity to think freely, while guiding them to find unique solutions to problems will prove beneficial.
Millennials look up to their seniors — they hope to learn from them, to emulate them, to be successful like them. Managers who listen to their employees and connect with them one-on-one will be respected.
Coach them on important tools, tasks, and projects, and offer them the flexibility they need to achieve their goals. Create opportunities for growth — millennials want to feel inspired because they often express their identities through the work they do.
Reverse mentoring is a great way to engage millennials — they can lend their expertise (e.g. digital skills) to senior-level employees in return for invaluable lessons and expert advice. This will help them to develop their leadership skills and allow them to forge a strong relationship with a trusted adviser.
By creating a mentorship dynamic where employees are guided and coached to enhance their abilities, companies can build trust and loyalty.
Millennials want to know that their work matters — they want to feel challenged, inspired and valued. They love flat hierarchies, honest feedback, and transparent leadership. Dedicate time to review their progress and give constructive feedback. Inspire them to aim higher and serve their thirst for success and knowledge.
By mentoring them and providing them with the guidance and support they desire, it is possible to unlock their potential and maximize their performance.