Managing Millennials Will Make Anyone a Better Leader

By: David S. Williams, CPCU, AIC, PCP, Chief Claims Officer

I’ll readily admit during most of my 36-year career in the insurance industry I was a full-fledged micro-manager.  As a “boomer” I was brought up in the business with many “top down command and control” leaders as examples.  I thought at some level job title, experience and knowledge were most of what a good leader needed to effectively and efficiently lead people and run a business. 

What I’ve learned is a lot of time and energy was wasted trying to make sure those I was keeping a close eye on, for everything they were doing, was getting mixed results and serving to stifle morale and the motivation to deliver excellence.

Today, as I work here in Austin, TX for a not for profit in a very competitive job market, it’s hard to find the experienced talent you need at any cost.  We’ve found the best alternative is to hire smart recent college graduates and develop them into the employees your company needs to be successful. 

Over the last 7 years I was provided with the opportunity to lead and develop several Millennials.  What I’ve learned from them has helped to fundamentally change my leadership style while providing the pure satisfaction of watching young less-experienced professionals learn and grow their careers.

I’m the father of 3 Millennials so I know a little bit about how they think and act and unlike some members of my own generation don’t have much of the perceived or actual animosity toward this younger generation simply because “they don’t do things the way we do things”. 

I’ve seen first-hand how they use technology (taught my wife and me to text since they never answer their phones) and how they build relationships, communicate and collaborate with their friends and peers, for good or bad, during the high school and college years. 

In raising our children, my wife and I thought ahead about where we wanted our children to end up, worked with them to set goals, parameters for acceptable behaviors, to take steps to think through their actions before taking them, and to take smart risks.  Like most children, ours made mistakes.  When that happened, we reminded them to understand what they learned from the mistakes so they would not repeat them.  This approach helped our 3 children grow up to be successful adults. 

I realized when given the opportunity to lead Millennials, the same approach might work with our new less experienced employees.  Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying a leader should be a parent to their employees.  Instead, a good leader may use good parenting techniques to guide their people to look ahead, think about where they want to go with their careers, help them set goals, encourage them to seek out challenges, take smart risks, think through their actions before they take them, and learn from mistakes so they are not repeated.  This is probably good advice for anyone.

So, what have Millennials taught me over the years? 

First, they’re fearless.  Don’t be afraid to challenge them.  They love to solve complex problems and do so in very creative and what some may see as unconventional ways.  Trust them enough to let them do it in their own way, which usually means intense research and communication and collaboration with their peers inside and outside of your organization.  This might take longer, but in many instances, I’ve seen them move faster and come up with solutions many, including myself, may not have considered. 

Second, understand they will not do it the way you might have done it or want them to do it.  Give them the freedom to explore and make mistakes in their approach or solutions.  What damage can they do if ultimately you work with them to make most of the final decisions?  At times they may not deliver the results you expect.  When that happens, use these opportunities as teachable moments, not failures.  

Third, let them get out of their normal office environment to explore options not readily in front of them.  Let them work from home or somewhere they feel more comfortable.  I’ve seen first-hand many times how this works for the better.  Here’s some good advice: If you’re ever struggling to get someone at another company or governmental agency to respond to your inquiries and requests, I’ve learned if you “have your Millennials talk to their Millennials”, quite often they will open up the communication channels you were unsuccessful at opening up. 

Lastly, they want to learn constantly.  Be sure to expose them to as much of your business as possible.  Stretch them by giving them unique or non-traditional tasks or roles.  Immerse them in new and different roles, even if temporary.  Give them the opportunity to learn and establish their key business and personal relationships through a variety of educational courses and especially conferences and seminars where they can meet with their peers and share knowledge and experiences. 

Watching Millennials work, learn, and grow has re-energized me as a leader and helped motivate me to be more open and flexible in my leadership style.  I’ve found my natural curiosity has increased and I find more satisfaction than ever conducting research and learning new things.  I truly believe this will help me be the leader I need to be through the constant change we’re all going through now and for the next ten years and beyond.

I know some reading this might think that spending so much time and energy developing Millennials only to have them leave your organization might not be time and money well spent.  I can assure anyone that the satisfaction of seeing them move on to an even better job somewhere else, knowing you played a part in their success, makes up for any feeling of loss.   It also provides the opportunity to replace them and the satisfaction to start all over again with a new employee making the effort all worth-while. 

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