No doubt about it, Millennials are different.  But like all employees, it’s cheaper to keep them than to replace them.  So knowing how to manage them well is critical to the bottom line.  Here are three basic tips for being someone’s first (or second or third) boss.


1.    Outline expectations clearly.


Millennials, unlike GenX’ers and Boomers, expect most things in life to have an instruction book.  For them, video games were always clear about how many cybertrolls you needed to immolate with a robotic talon in order to move on to the next level.  For you, riding bikes around the neighborhood with your friends meant deciding on your own whether you were going to be the kids from Goonies or the Imperial Senate on any given day. So how do you get the most out of your employees when they come from a world of step-by-step instructions to a world where no one has time to explain the what, why and how of their assignments? 


·      Acknowledge upfront that the work environment is different.  Millennials need to know that they will be given guidelines and timelines to get things done, but the rest is largely up to them.  It’s not that they can’t do the work  - it’s that no one has ever expected them to figure it out on their own.

·      Describe the important criteria for success at your company.  Is showing up early, staying late and going to every meeting critical to your management team?  Or does management care more about high quality work being submitted on time?  Tell them upfront, or they’ll waste a lot of time trying to figure it out.

·      Be clear about the objectives they need to meet in order to support organizational performance.  Sales departments are great at quantifying good / better / best performance, but other functional areas tend to be less clear.  Let your employees know “how many,” “how quickly,” and why it’s important.


2.    Explain the chain of command.


For many Millennials, the concept of authority is often intertwined with the concept of community. When everybody gets a trophy and a juice box at athletic competitions, it levels the playing field so that there is limited opportunity to build the skills of a good leader or a good follower.  In school, the focus on inclusiveness can be just as significant as the focus on building skills.  While this is valuable for making sure that each kid has a voice in group decision-making, it can also leave them unprepared for understanding the necessary hierarchy of an organization.  Again, upfront clarity and communication can save a lot of headaches down the road. 


·      Describe the whole picture and how they fit into it.   You can’t get too basic here.  Start with the initial idea or premise on which the organization is based, and explain what the most important factors are for being able to translate those into personal success.  Draw a clear link to how their activities are ultimately aimed at supporting the organization’s goals (i.e. better, cheaper delivery or more satisfied customers).

·      Explain that you have goals to meet for your boss, and that (s)he, in turn, has goals that depend on your performance .  Being a part of something bigger is something that Millennials generally value, but their impact is not often clear in an entry-level or near entry-level position.  Explain how capital flows drive budgets and how budget variances in turn drive salaries and other resource allocations.  It can make the difference between their working to meet a goal and their working to exceed one.

·      Underscore that they look good if they help you look good.  Reminding younger employees that you have shared goals can help them accept specific feedback.  For example, asking for research and getting a data dump of articles can be frustrating when you are on a tight timeline.  Take the time to explain upfront why you need the data and how you plan to synthesize and analyze it for presentation.  In understanding this, your Millennials are much more likely to add their own preliminary summaries, organizing structures and aggregated list of topics and resources.


3.    Explain that mistakes or frustrations are ok, but surprises are not.


Most people, not just Millennials, have a natural tendency to sit on their own work until they absolutely have to show it to someone else.  Many managers tend to assume everything is going fine leading up to a deadline, simply because they have so much on their own plates.  This is the stuff of which nightmares (and Tim Burton movies) are made.   


·      Honor formal checkpoints and be zealous about creating informal ones.  This is not easy - time is always at a premium and there are countless ways to rationalize missing meetings with your junior staff.  For their part, Millennials may be fully satisfied with electronic checkpoints - until they realize it can result in redoing work.  Don’t get caught not knowing how things are going.  Have the meetings and ask the hard questions (“Your assignment is not due until our next meeting, but could you give us an update on your progress at this one?”).  Let your employees know that when you stop by their cube you don’t mind seeing that they are IM’ing about lunch, but you do mind them putting you off about how things are going.  Dust off your “Management By Walking Around” articles.  Just because MBWA is a bad acronym doesn’t mean it’s not a sound principle.

·      Share stories of times when you got off the track and how you got back on.  Remember when you were starting out and spent three hours categorizing line items in a spreadsheet because you didn’t know how to use the sort tool?  How about the month you spent thinking EBITDA was a new product?  We’ve all been there and recovered.  Your Millennials never have.  Let them know making mistakes is a natural part of everyone’s career- sometimes you can only learn how to do something right by doing it wrong.

·      Discuss assignments qualitatively - not just whether it’s done, but what it means.  Don’t let check-ins be just reviewing the percentage complete and making sure the target due date has not moved.  Stand back from the deliverable and ask your Millennials what (s)he thinks about the work.  Will it become an effective piece of the overall deliverable?  Could (s)he explain it, if asked,  in a way that parents or roommates could understand? Are there any insights becoming clear?  Make sure they know it’s not about just doing the work – it’s also about understanding it.


Embrace your fear that your Millennials are a lot smarter than you are and share with them what you know.  It is not easy to balance being both an authority figure and a supportive team member, but taking the time to deliver some simple upfront messages can help make the Millennial more productive for the organization and improve the experience for you both. 

AuthorAmy Feind-Reeves