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Tips to Engage Millennials

February 6, 2017

Preparing younger team members for big projects means breaking complex tasks into smaller ones.

Millennials, especially the best the brightest, are eager to hit the ground running and take on more challenges and responsibility. This is what a Millennial recently told me: “You want me to love this job? Then make it lovable. Give me a challenge. Give me a chance to do something bigger and better.”

This kind of enthusiasm and desire to take on challenges is valuable, but it also puts a huge amount of pressure on Millennials’ immediate supervisors. The senior manager in the buying organization of a large retail chain shared this experience: “One of my direct reports always tells me, ‘I’ve done that before,’ as if that is a good enough reason for me to give her a different assignment. ‘I am giving you this assignment, because you know how to do it,’ I say. I know what she really means is that she is not feeling challenged. But if I am going to take advantage of her willingness to take on these new challenges, I have to find the time to teach her.”

It’s not just misplaced arrogance on the part of Millennials, but rather a result of their natural adaptation to the information environment. The nature of professional learning today is a continuous just-in-time, all-the-time endeavor. Millennials have never known it any other way. That’s why they are always in a hurry to advance to the next skill set or the next task, responsibility, or project – even when they seem clearly not ready from your perspective. 

I’ve been told that by leaders in supermarkets and nuclear weapons labs, and everybody in between. We call this the “meaningful roles problem” the simple fact is that if it takes you months or years to get Millennials up to speed and into meaningful roles on your team, then you’ll have serious problems keeping high-potential Millennials engaged and growing.

One Piece at a Time. 

How can you handle this conundrum? You may have to unbundle complex roles and then rebuild them one tiny piece at a time. You can give Millennials meaningful work at early stages in their tenure if you commit to teaching and transferring to them one small task or responsibility at a time. Here is a great example that an engineering group leader from that nuclear weapons research laboratory shared with me: “I learned from the mechanics here who are short-staffed.

They teach new mechanics to do one simple task very well. Then, after the new mechanics do that task for a few days, they add another simple task, and so on. After a few weeks, the new mechanics have a dozen things they can do pretty well, and they are full-ledged members of the team, but with a much smaller repertoire.”

It may be very high-tech work they are doing in that nuclear weapons lab, but this is low-tech training at its best. Remember that Millennials want to learn from people, not just from computers. If you are willing to be the teacher, you can support Millennials in their desire to acquire the ability to learn new things very quickly. You can train them the old-fashioned way in short-term stages that track directly with adjustments in their day-to-day responsibilities.

Every new task turns into a proving ground, which enables them to demonstrate proficiency and earn more responsibility right away. I realize this approach to training Millennials requires a high degree of engagement and ongoing teaching and managing. But that’s how you can keep Millennials growing fast over the first, and the second, and the third year. Who knows? You might even be able to help them gain depth and wisdom way beyond their years.

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the bestselling author of numerous books including The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014) and Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (2009). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, and more.



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