building millennial leaders

Building Millennial Leaders

Building Millennial Leaders

building millennial leaders






Part 1 – Understanding the millennial cohort

1. Work-wise how are millennials different and what are the challenges that the organization will face due to this. How do they like to work?

Millennials today face inherent contradictions in the way they work and at times struggle to align their own values with that of their organization. Some of these contradictions include:

  • Intrinsic v/s Extrinsic Motivation
  • Authentic v/s Dissonant Culture
  • Embracing Innovation v/s Accepting Conformity
  • Digital Disruption v/s Linear Growth
  • Being Collaborative v/s Riding Solo
  • Continuous v/s One-Time Learning
  • Managing Self v/s Leading Others

The fundamental insight regarding millennials is that they are not just motivated by extrinsic factors. Ex CEO of Microsoft Ravi Venkatesan points out that ‘Millennials supposedly lack loyalty, focusing on entitlements and rewards, but I find many young Indians hungry for meaning and purpose.’ Research shows that employee engagement is “three times more strongly related to intrinsic than extrinsic motives” and that intrinsic motivation is a stronger predictor of job performance than extrinsic motivation.

Organizations and managers may underestimate the power of intrinsic motivation when it comes to engaging their team members. Many workplaces today may still be (perhaps unintentionally) implementing some version of the carrot-and-stick approach to motivation to engage their millennial employees. If one were to plot this on a spectrum, it might look something like this:


If managers believe that individuals are only motivated by extrinsic means, they might resort to various versions of the carrot and stick approach to engage them. There is an unintended consequence to overusing this approach. The stick at times becomes the primary tool for engagement and as a result, managers may fall back on a command and control style of management. When team members are frequently reprimanded for their mistakes, the fear of failure may take over and risk-taking ability is stunted. This may in turn lead to a trust deficit between individuals, and the workplace may no longer be deemed a safe place to innovate. A sense of fear activates the threat response in an individual and increases stress levels, leading to a workplace blanketed by anxiety and a lack of trust. Emma Seppälä of Stanford University points out that management style centred on attributes such as compassion, empathy and forgiveness can go a long way in building trust, loyalty and creativity.

2.  What are some strategies to engage and work with them?

The mistake that one can make is to assume that the primary driver for anyone to do great work is primarily extrinsic. This is a self-fulfilling trap and may set a suboptimal precedent for workplace culture. Perhaps it is time for us to consider encouraging behaviours and mindsets that lean towards intrinsic motivation. A better strategy to improve workforce engagement might look something like this:



Intrinsic motivation sits at the core, and takes up the most space in the motivation arena. Extrinsic factors such as rewards are not completely done away with, but occupy the periphery – it is only fair that effort and performance be given due recognition. Fair and adequate pay, increments, bonuses and other perquisites are indeed essential to ensure a healthy quality of living for employees and their families. The most successful organizations pay above market standards. More importantly, it is essential to take the issue of monetary compensation off the table so that the focus is on the work itself. Professionals perform at their very best when they are engaged in challenging work, co-create with their colleagues, utilize and develop their skills, and find a sense of purpose in the work that they do.

When leaders build an organization centred on an inspiring mission, and create a safe environment that encourages innovation, they in turn attract millennial candidates who believe in the purpose of the firm. The employees feel like they are connected to something bigger than themselves and dreary job profiles can turn into exciting vocations.

The three essential elements that fuel intrinsic motivation include:

  • Autonomy: Our need to be autonomous and self-directed.
  • Mastery: Becoming better at something that matters, through sustained and deliberate effort.
  • Purpose: Working for a cause greater and more enduring than

Perhaps a good starting point on the journey to engaging the largest and youngest cohort at the workplace today could begin with the following assumption: Millennials bring plenty of energy, enthusiasm and varied thought processes to our workplaces, and many of them passionately seek out meaningful experiences and want to create an impact. How could we then provide them with purposeful work and a sense of autonomy, challenging assignments, learning opportunities, and invest in their growth, which would ultimately result in sustainable growth for the organization? For their part, millennials would do well to ask themselves when they are the most engaged, approach their work with a sense of enthusiasm and allow themselves to find meaning and significance in what they do.

Part 2 – Grooming the millennial cohort

As millennials grow into their roles, they will need to take on larger people management responsibilities.

1.  What are ‘leading others’ challenges this group will face?

Millennials will face clear challenges as they transition from individual contributor to people- manager roles. First, setting clear boundaries: learning to let go of prior notions on how work ought to be executed and trusting their team a lot more. Second, giving people enough space to perform within pre-defined boundaries that everyone has agreed to. Third, empowering their team by announcing their involvement to critical stakeholders, thus ensuring inter-departmental collaboration. Fourth, being available as a coach and mentor to team members and regularly setting up one-on-one coaching sessions.

An additional challenge that’s particular to this cohort is the lack of finesse in managing interpersonal relationships. Because this is a generation that has grown up in an age of technology and social media, they may at times lack the skills required to effectively engage with those around them.

2.  As they grow, how do you cater to their specific needs?

Year on year engagement surveys around the world reveal that millennials feel isolated and are not being fully listened to. No wonder organizations face high attrition at the front line and transition journeys are not always successful. A key takeaway from this finding is that it isn’t sufficient to only train this particular cohort in isolation. What is needed is sensitization of the ecosystem, ensuring that there is a constant stream of communication across levels and putting in place a support system to help millennials achieve their respective goals. This means that firms must consider sensitizing not only the managers, but also senior leaders in the organization.

3.  How do you pick the right kinds of people for leadership roles from the group of Millennials?

Apart from general cognitive ability required to execute well, it is also important to look for millennials who showcase ‘Emergent Leadership’. i.e. testing one’s ability to not only step up and lead, but also step back to create the space for others to take over as and when the situation arises.

High-potential millennials are not constrained by their past experiences, and proactively work towards building new skills. They may stumble and fall while navigating through unfamiliar territory, but zealously work their way through the uncertainty, not averse to having some fun along the way. They leverage existing networks and make new connections. They make up for what they lack in ability with an intense desire to learn. In fact, new assignments and transition periods provide the best opportunities for personal growth.

4.  How do you groom them in the right manner, in ways that appeal to them? And helps them grow as people managers?

The most important quality that differentiates the best managers from the rest is the ability to be a good coach. While millennials may learn a lot by being coached by senior leaders and coaches, first time millennial managers may benefit through application of such coaching techniques during their interaction with their own team members.

As individual contributors, millennials may have made career choices inclined towards specialist or generalist roles. As specialists, they may have gained depth of expertise in a field, or as generalists they may have handled a variety of responsibilities. They would have collaborated with team members within and outside their departments, managed internal and external stakeholders, and liaised with clients.

But once millennials transition to people manager roles that require them to engage others, they would likely be expected to exhibit an entirely new set of behaviours such as giving and receiving feedback, inspiring others, communicating openly and effectively, showing sensitivity in interpersonal relationships, focusing on team results, and most importantly, challenging the status quo and setting others up for success. Inculcating a ‘growth mindset’ can help millennials grow these new muscles.

This article contains excerpts from The Millennials: Exploring the world of the largest living generation, published by Penguin.

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