Millennials in Leadership: 3 Best practices To Navigate The Generation Gap


Congratulations! You are part of the small group of millennials currently working in government. You are also one of the even fewer in your generational cohort working in a supervisory role in the public sector.  Your dedication and commitment to meaningful work has paid off.  You are looking forward to your new role.  You know the organizational objectives you have to meet.  You have a relatively clear understanding of what senior leadership expects from you and your team.  You know where your office fits into the larger picture of your organization, and you have a vision of where you’d like to lead your team over the course of the next year or two.

However, you have hit a roadblock.  Your team is comprised of mostly mid-late career professionals with double your life and career experience.  What now? No one has prepared you for this.  You’ve researched articles but you only seem to find news about the constant challenge the public sector is facing with recruiting and retaining millennial talent.  This proves to be discouraging because your effort to speak with other millennials has just become much more daunting.  You have sought out mentors and asked for advice from other colleagues but you have not gotten the sense that your unique sets of challenges are thoroughly understood.

We understand the murky waters you are forced to navigate without a compass.  Unfortunately, you are not alone.  There are a few ambitious peers that have worked their way up the chains of command and have been awarded the responsibility of being a thought leader for their organization.  This exciting opportunity comes with many unforeseen challenges so here are 3 tips to get you started as you continue to grow within your new role:

Meet People Where They Are

As a Millennial, you are a member of a generational cohort born between the early 1980s and late 1990s.   This talented corps embodies traits in the workplace that older generations such as Baby Boomers and Generation Xers are working to adjust to which means that these (sometimes) unfounded stereotypes work against you.  But this does not have to be the case.  While bridging the gap between generational differences requires more effort, it becomes easier to manage with this first step by taking the time to know your team members individually.  Many new leaders want to assert themselves to establish authority.  However, this tactic usually backfires.  By taking the initiative to become well-versed in what motivates your employees as well as learn the traits of their generation, you will establish a congenial repertoire with each individual.  This extra level of effort will also shine through to your team thus displaying your genuine respect for them as professionals and build trust.  These two soft skills help any leader in a new role in which they want to establish themselves and be taken seriously.

Give FaceTime

Millennials are technologically-savvy.  This skillset is highly-valued in the public sector but it is also difficult to manage because it comes with behaviors that do not easily translate into this working environment. The technological age has forced members of this group to process copious amounts of information in a matter of seconds which results in having the attention span to watch 30-second video clips, conduct business by shooting a text message, and exchanging contact information at networking events by texting contact cards via iPhones.  This behavior is perceived by prior generations as having an unhealthy relationship with technology—namely social media—which then translates to the misconception of having a poor work ethic.  To combat this idea, keep in mind the value of face time.  This goes in line with meeting people where they are as previously mentioned.  Technology is a powerful tool that the millennial generation has wisely used for progressive business. However, as a millennial leader, it is important to note the pace at which your team is ready to receive these new and diverse tools.  Regardless of how you choose to integrate technology into your office or organization, quality in-person conversations will have positive relationship-building effects in the long run.

Stepping Outside of Self

Studies suggest that Millennials have been labeled as the entitled and narcissistic generation.  The silver lining to this (mis)perception is that it implies a sense of self-awareness that exists within this group.  The economic landscape in which millennials grew through forced creativity, resourcefulness and entrepreneurialism in a fast-paced society.  This conditioning perpetuates a strong sense of knowing what they want and how they want it.  Behaviors such as this challenges the traditional hierarchy of public sector organizations as well as the mindset of older generations who hold different values. While these are positive traits for millennials—or anyone—to possess when ambitiously progressing through a career, it does not have to come at the expense of being perceived as a narcissistic leader.  A best practice for establishing yourself as a millennial in leadership overseeing a team of older generations is to practice servant leadership in your work context.  Simply put, servant leadership emphasizes the notion that leaders are there to serve their employees while providing guidance and oversight.  If an employee feels fully invested in the decision making process for the organization, (s)he will have increased performance.  And, a fully engaged workforce meets the organization’s objective.  It’s a win-win.

You’re a millennial with the responsibility of being a dynamic driver of change in a world changing at a pace much faster than many are able to understand it.  You have the platform to transform your organization and drive it deeper into the 21st century all the while keeping an agile workforce.  A few small habits integrated into your daily practice will make this exhilarating challenge one to remember.

Melinda Burks is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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