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Engaging Millennials: Focus on the Leader, Not the Label

By Stephanie Neal

Stephanie Neal

More businesses are tailoring their talent programs to Millennials, and with good reason.  Millennials have become the largest single demographic in the workforce, surpassing Gen Xers and Baby Boomers. They are also advancing into leadership more rapidly—the average Millennial has been promoted three times in the past five years. Organizations that should be paying special attention to the development of these new leaders are aggressive-growth companies, such as those in the high-tech industry, which are 2.8X more likely to have promoted a majority of Millennials into leadership than organizations that are slower to expand.

The problem is that many ideas about what defines this group of new leaders and their motivations are based more in myth than fact. Generalizations about Millennials’ work preferences are too often based on a small number of observations or poorly collected data, so when serving as the basis for talent planning they could result in cookie-cutter programs that don’t actually grow Millennial leaders the way they need and want.

Engaging MillennialsCatering talent programs to any single demographic in a diverse leadership pool is less than ideal, and targeting Millennials may be especially problematic. Pew Research recently released their finding that the majority of Millennials themselves don’t identify with the label (only 40 percent indicated that they do). Having programs designed to appeal to Millennials, especially if based on false stereotypes, could really backfire since most Millennials don’t subscribe to the notion that they are part of the group. Even worse, by missing the mark, building programs around bad information could lose the engagement and interest of the audience they were designed for in the first place.

If engaging Millennials is the goal, it’s critical to understand what really defines their leadership experience and not just their preferences. We explored data from over 13,000 leaders who responded to the Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015 to identify what experiences most impact their engagement and likelihood to stay with their organizations. In particular, Millennials’ engagement and retention was most significantly impacted by these seven conditions:

  1. Knowing where they will grow to: Having a clear career path as a leader within the organization.
  2. Sufficient development support: Having a manager who is effective at developing them as a leader.
  3. Making reasonable progress: Advancing upward in the organization at an acceptable rate.
  4. Support from development champions: Having senior executives who are committed to developing their organization’s leaders.
  5. Great leadership quality overall: Having a high level of overall leadership quality at the organization.
  6. Opportunities to learn and grow: Having access to high-quality leadership development opportunities or programs.
  7. Knowing what it takes to succeed: Having information about the specific competencies/skill areas (e.g., coaching, team-building) needed to succeed as a leader.

These results reveal that the best ways to engage Millennials involve providing real substance: They are seeking the highest-quality leadership experiences which will give them the information, development, and support they’ll need to succeed and thrive as leaders at their organizations. And while there may be many misperceptions about what kind of learning and development they most respond to, Millennial leaders provided clear responses on that, too. Their learning preferences are not unique from other generations except that, contrary to the stereotype, they are more engaged by more formal learning and learning from others. In fact, Millennials rated formal, in-person development higher than any other generation’s leaders by at least five percent and indicated that they want more interactive and high-touch learning, not less of it.

When planning the best ways to grow with this generation’s leaders, it pays to look past the labels and false notions, and focus on what really matters to the leaders themselves. Sure, this generation may be more responsive to new technologies and innovations since they have a higher comfort level with and expectation for it, but to really engage Millennials, technology is no substitute for substance.

Stephanie Neal is a research scientist for the Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER).

For more information about the Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015 research, including 25 highly actionable findings about the current state of leadership, an evidence-based roadmap for leadership development, a scoreboard of 20 common talent management practices, and global benchmarks for 11 metrics about leadership talent, see

Posted: 14 Sep, 2015,
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