Leading Millennials Vs. Managing Them: Why The Difference Matters

Leading Millennials Vs. Managing Them: Why The Difference Matters
Summary: As the younger workforce grows, leading Μillennials will require a shift from a style of top-down management to collaborative inspiration. Talent and development leaders who are working with the emerging millennial workforce should keep in mind what engages them and use that to lead them.

Why Differences Between Leading Millennials And Managing Them Matter

Back in 2015, Millennials (ages 19 to 32) surpassed Generation X (ages 35 to 50) as the largest workforce demographic, and their presence is starting to cause foundational shifts inside the office. While it’s impossible to paint an entire generation with one broad brush stroke (though some would like to) one thing is clear: leading Millennials is much more effective than managing them.

What does that distinction mean? Leadership speaker and author John O’Leary interviewed top business leaders [1] for Harvard Business Review to understand the difference between leaders and managers in the modern business. He found interviewees were more likely to talk about the character of a leader and the behaviors of a manager.

He concludes that, in general, management traits are focused on using people’s skills to efficiently achieve business outcomes, whereas leadership traits focus on motivating and developing people for the benefit of the team. "Focus more on people and you’ll demonstrate leadership, more on results and you’ll perform management", writes O’Leary.

This may be especially true when it comes to leading Millennials. Whereas top-down management techniques may have created efficient teams in past generations, Millennials are looking for mentorship, professional development, collaboration, and respect.

Lead Millennials Through Mentorship

Millennials want to grow in their positions, so they are seeking feedback and guidance from their managers. Rather than waiting for the yearly review, take regular time to check in with your Millennial team members; find out where they’re struggling and offer them coaching.

Mentorship isn’t just crucial for developing skills. It will also help you retain your Millennial team members. According to the 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey [2], younger professionals intending to stay with their organization for more than 5 years are twice as likely to have a mentor than not (68% to 32%, respectively). Millennials crave coaching, and if they can’t find it at their current organization they’ll move somewhere that will.

Emphasize Professional Development And Training

Millennials are serious about investing in their careers. Like mentorship, learning on the job is important to the majority of Millennials (87%), reports Gallup [3]. But they’re not looking for the type of one-size-fits-all professional development courses of the past.

As digital natives, this demographic is used to finding just-in-time information from Google and YouTube rather than sitting through lengthy training seminars. They want to learn from peers and coworkers just as much as they want to learn from industry experts. And they want to have control over when and where they acquire their learning.

Millennials’ appetite for professional development matches well with training delivery methods like cloud-based Learning Management Systems (LMS), which allow employers to create and deliver course content on-demand. Employees can then access the training at the moment they need it from any of their devices, allowing them flexibility in both time and location.

Help Them Along Their Career Path

Millennials came of age just in time to watch their Boomer parents and Gen X cousins get let go from companies they had been loyal to, only to find themselves without marketable skill sets because they were working the same job for so many years.

It’s no wonder Μillennials are taking control of their own career paths, even if it means looking for positions at another company. Gallup reports [4] that 93% of Millennials have left an employer in order to change roles.

If you want to retain your Millennial team members, it’s not enough to manage them in their current role. Acting as a leader means helping develop your team’s skills in a way that’s consistent with their career trajectory and in a way that builds your organization’s talent pipeline.

Connect Their Work To A Bigger Purpose

Millennials are more likely than previous generations to want to do purposeful work. That doesn't necessarily mean all Μillennials want to work at non-profits, but they do want to know that the specific work they're doing makes a difference. Make sure your Millennial team members understand why work is assigned and how it fits in with the overall mission of the company.

As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, "Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want to be done because he wants to do it". When leading Μillennials, don’t just assign them work "because you said so". Get them on board by being transparent about why each job matters.

Leading Millennials Is All About Collaboration

The traditional top-down management style doesn't work for Μillennials, who prefer to collaborate with teams and often consider their managers more as the team’s captain rather than the team’s owner. When leading Μillennials, remember that even though you lead the team, you’re also one of the key players.

Good leaders know they have as much to learn from their employees as they have to teach. As you develop your Millennial team members, keep the lines of communication open. You may be surprised at what you learn as well.

In summary, talent and development leaders who are working with the emerging millennial workforce should keep in mind what engages them: mentorship, opportunities to learn, opportunities to build their career prospects, connection to a purpose, and collaboration.

Learn how to train Μillennials with The Beginner's Guide to Creating an Online Training Program.



  1. Do Managers and Leaders Really Do Different Things?
  2. The 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey Winning over the next generation of leaders
  3. What Millennials Want From Work and Life
  4. Millennial Job-Hoppers: What They Seek
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