‘Wait… How Old Are You?’: A Millennial Leadership Story


Recently, there have been a lot of articles and scrutiny about ‘How to Engage the Millennial Generation’, ‘How to Hire Millennials’, ‘How to Keep Millennials from Leaving’  and ‘How Millennials are Good/Bad/Indifferent to your Workforce.’ There was even a failed Twitter slander campaign that addressed #howtoconfuseamillennial which sought to make fun of the group but was quickly overtaken by the subjects themselves.

If you want to address all of those article topics–How To (fill in the blank) with Millennials–it’s probably best that you ask and involve them; thankfully, more and more teams realize this and are diversifying their executive staffs to include well-qualified, young professionals in top roles of the organization because they understand the value in that diversity. While it is important to address the variety of generational differences in the workforce and how to most successfully interact with all of them, I hope to shed some light on ‘the other side of the fence’: it’s not common to have a young leader with a more ‘seasoned’ team. This is where my story begins; don’t worry, it’s your story too, just wait and see.

No matter your station in life, Baby Boomer, Gen X, Gen Y, Millennial, or anything in between, it will be consistently important to recognize while we may not have the same ways of thinking or doing, those differences will be what makes us successful IF we highlight the best of each and work in coalition. We like to define people with oversimplified labels. The ultimate goal for any team who works together is to see past their pre-determined judgments into the complex beings that we are. For example, yes, like any good millennial I like hashtags and fist bumps but I’m also a big fan of paperback books and home-cooked meals.

I was also not the ‘typical’ government hire considering I had no government experience before my current position, but I found in my boss a willing risk taker who saw the opportunity to make a change and allow me the freedom and autonomy to take from my experience in the private sector and translate it to the government. While my bureau is a small one, we have the opportunity to impact each citizen that is born in our city, a huge charge, challenge and responsibility with a population numbering in the millions.

My first months were entirely focused on coalition building within my team: many of my associates had more years in tenure with this organization that I am years old. Navigating this landscape was a great learning experience both personally and professionally. My plan from the onset was to listen first, lead by example and never ask of my team something I was unwilling to do myself. Like all transitions, I was met with a mixed bag of reactions: early adopters, lifelong skeptics, double faced acceptance to my face and then rejection behind closed doors and everything in between. But through my time, whether by a self-admitted stubborn disposition, competitive drive to succeed or sense of higher purpose, I helped create a team where I know forward progress can take place.

I once heard a leader say ‘You must first seek to understand before you are understood’ and it stuck with me. Without creating that coalition first, I would never have been able to (efficiently) navigate the updates and changes that my superiors expected at my hiring. We have several major initiatives being juggled simultaneously, all focused on improved efficiencies and all are ‘the most important.’ It’s a great challenge as we look for ways to improve a field known for sticking to procedure, no matter the cost to customer service. Even when my team falls back into old habits or resists change, I see it as an opportunity to highlight the ‘why’ behind the decision to build a coalition of change-makers. Do we hit cliché obstacles just like every other government agency? Yes, of course, but it’s facing those challenges together as a group with optimism and vision rather than resignation and defeat that keeps us going.

So really, whether email is your best friend or you are a proponent of face to face interactions, age is just another label. It may be uncomfortable at first because any new team faces obstacles but the experiences that make us different generationally are not exclusive of team goals, in fact that can make our success even greater. The coalitions we are working to build include leadership and front-line associates and back-office workers and Millennials and tenured veterans and everything in between. Are you building walls and silos or coalitions and teams?


Kellen Sweny 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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Joe Raasch

Great personal story here! The generational labels were dreamed up by revenue-hungry consulting firms and accepted by ineffective managers who dodn’t want to do the hard work of getting to know their teams. You appear to have a manager that ‘gets it’ – individuals drive change and results, not broad-brushed labels. You are successful in leading your team because you support them as individuals.

Engaging in generational identity politics at work creates the very obstacles that managers are supposed to avoid.