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Mastering the Language of Millennials

It was wheels up and we were just barely through the cloud ceiling at 10,000 feet, heading to Las Vegas – my final destination. I was to share the following day with 100+ salespeople and sales managers from one of our clients in the hospitality industry.

A little distracted, as I visualized the meeting I was going to be facilitating the next day, a kind gentleman seated next to me was trying to kick up a conversation – on just about any subject I would bite on.

“Where is your final destination?” he kindly asked with a smile.

“Vegas.” I quipped back – but with a smile.

As I started to turn my head to re-engage my mind, he re-engaged me again.

“Oh, final destination I see…business or pleasure?”

“No, business.” I replied. “I wish it was for pleasure, but I am in and out.”

He paused for a few minutes and as I was just about through visualizing my opening words to the presentation for the next day, he engaged again…

“So what is it that you do?”

I paused and my inner voice was conflicted between ‘be nice’ and ‘just politely tell him you need to work on the flight.’ I then responded, “I run a leadership and sales talent development company, been doing it for the past 30 years.”

“Oh,” he quickly reacted “I started my own company too….in the IT space. I’ll tell you,” he went on, “great business, but these millennials, wow are they ill-equipped for the real world, and so hard to lead and manage!”

The dialogue, which I was now about to fully submerge myself into – because at my core, I am a teacher, and could not help myself – was identical to the conversation I find myself constantly in these days with clients, friends and colleagues about the emerging populace we are about to hand the keys to the kingdom to.

As a matter of fact, right now millennials comprise 35% of the US workforce. According to Brookings Data, by 2025 millennials will be the dominant majority of the workforce with 75% of the jobs filled by this generation.

“I am curious,” I said as my body language shifted from a distant stare posture to a curious head tilt, like a young dog makes when they hear a sound they never quite ever heard before; “what have you seen and experienced with this generation that makes you feel this way?”

With a big smile – mostly because I think he knew I took the bait – he went on with a diatribe about the ills of our future kings and queens:

“These young people coming up are so socially inept, for starters…in addition, they lack the work ethic it takes to succeed. They want recognition, rewards and compensation without tangible, measurable results. They rarely – if ever – listen or follow instructions. And talk about lack of initiative, self-reliance and personal responsibility to follow a process or plan to achieve core critical objectives…”

As my newfound friend – granted, slightly obnoxious friend – waxed on, I could not help but drift off in memory to one of the very first leadership classes I had ever taught at a large regional bank in my home town – 27 years ago.

As I waited for my class of students to populate the seats, the learning manager at the firm was chewing my ear off about how the employees that had started to fill the seats were all going to be unengaged, indifferent to the training and for the most part preoccupied and distracted with other things throughout the day ahead.

As he shared his prophecy with reverence and conviction, I simply responded, “Then maybe, just maybe, that is where we should start our discussion with them.”

As his jaw dropped from my response, I stepped to the front of the class and entered the conversation with this gifted group of emerging talent, right where the majority of people are when they are placed into a class designed to:

– Tell them what to do, rather than ask them what to do

– Speak at them, rather than speak with them

– Dictate the goals, strategies and plans to success rather than collaborate on these same things

– Focus on what management and the company wants, as opposed to asking them what they want out of life and helping them align their desires with the goals and objectives of the company

As I re-engaged my new friend, now at 35,000 feet and cruising speed, I calmly replied, “I understand your sentiment, but respectfully disagree. You see, the millennial generation, like all prior generations, is comprised of some people with the traits, behaviors and demeanor you have described. However, it is also comprised of some people that do not behave and think this way…wouldn’t you agree?” I asked with an inquisitive gaze.

“Well yeah, for sure I have met some that are not the way I described, in fact, completely the opposite.” He uttered slowly as his mind caught up with his spoken words.

“You see, that has been my experience with millennials too, and in fact it has been my exact experience with each and every generation I have ever had the honor and privilege to work with:  Including my generation – the Baby Boomers – and even the generations senior to mine; The Silent Generation and  The Greatest Generation”.

“Each new generation is comprised of all new people, yet each are comprised of the exact same characters, meaning they each are comprised of doers and achievers as well as slackers and under achievers. “It is true, isn’t it?” I asked my new friend and co-pilot.

“Well yeah, actually that is true.” He said as he attempted to place the air brakes on.

“So maybe, just maybe, we need to study and master this language, first.  In fact, it is a universal language that unlocks the potential of all people, regardless of generation.” I chimed back, as I pushed the mental hammer down and thrusted forward in thought…

“So what is it?” he asked.

“What is what?” I responded in kind.

“What is the language?” he fired back.

“Well in order to best answer your question, I need to ask you one important question first:  As leaders, what is it that we are actually supposed to be leading people to?”

He paused in thought as I continued on…

“You see, most leaders think we are there to exclusively lead and manage people to achieve the goals and objectives of the organization and/or department they manage and coach; but the truth is this is only a small fraction of what we are there to do.  The greatest task is to lead and carefully place them on the path to self-actualization.”

“Hmm I’ve never thought about it from this perspective, but I think I see what you are getting at, we need to speak to them about who they are, and what they want. “

“Exactly,” I exclaimed, “we need to speak to them in the universal language that makes every soul – regardless of generation – want to soar. We need to speak to the part of them that no one ever talks to; the part that wants to grow and become all they can become, so that they can do, have and achieve all that they want in their life!”

All generations, from the greatest generation, the silent generation, the baby boomers, generation x through to the millennials are populated with talented people that have and will shape our world.  After all, it always has and always will.

However, the onus to tap this potential is up to the leaders of each generation that precedes them; to recognize, learn and apply the universal language that encourages the strong and bold, unshackles those that are temporarily meek and weak, and will enable each member of the millennial generation to reach their full potential, too!

The truth is that tapping into the collective power of our workforce’s largest and fastest growing generation is much simpler than most realize.  All we need to do as leaders is learn to speak the proper language, such as:

  1. Taking the time to learn their personal dreams and goals, and ask them how achieving their career/business goals will enable them to reach their life goals. You will be inspired by what you learn.
  2. Try asking them to help you set new organizational goals, rather than give them the goals.
  3. Ask them to identify the obstacles to achieving each goal and to help craft the walkaround solutions, rather than you simply giving them these solutions.
  4. Even when you know the answer to the questions they ask, challenge them to take the time to research for the answer themselves – when appropriate – Why? They love to do this and they are truly great at it!

As I turned to dive head first back into my in-flight preparation, I left my new friend with one final thought.

If we want to help the millennial generation contribute and succeed in our organizations, we must learn to speak their language. However, the most profound part of this declaration is that this language is nothing new, it is the same language that has always awoken and unleashed the potential of every single generation that has moved the needle and made a contribution to the collective good of humanity.”

As the clouds slowly parted and we started our final approach,  I could see by my friends demeanor that he had already landed.  He put his hand out and said with a smile, “thank you for a wonderful journey today”.  “You are most welcome”, I replied, both knowing the Journey had just begun!


Join the conversation and let me know what you have implemented to stir the souls of this dynamic and talented generation……. I would love to hear from you…..

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