Developing Millennials Into Your Firm’s Next Generation of Leaders

by FEI Daily Staff

“I don’t get them.” “When I was their age …” “I don’t know how to talk to them.”

© DesignPics/Thinkstock

Have you had any of these thoughts about members of Generation Y, the Millennials? If you have, it’s time to stop and adopt a new mindset. They’re a highly educated, innovative force that has swept through the workplace and now influences every level of their organizations. If you’re not actively recruiting, developing and working to retain Gen Y professionals, you’re losing competitive edge.

Businessweek’s Matthew Philips recently reported, “According to U.S. Census data, there are more people in their twenties (44.5 million) than in their thirties (41 million), forties (41.7 million), or fifties (43.8 million).” These professionals are very much a part of your firm’s present – and future.

What steps can you take to groom Millennials into your next generation of leaders?

Managing Millennials

Start by learning what makes them tick. For most Millennials, their core desires are like those of every other generational group – a job that they enjoy and is a source of pride, a manager they respect and can learn from, fair compensation, and the ability to balance their professional and personal lives.

At the same time, there are unique attributes common among members of this generation. For one, they frequently crave feedback. You can tap into this need and foster passion and commitment from these employees by helping them answer:

• Where am I going in my career? • What’s important to my company? • How does my role help the company reach its objectives? • How can my company and my manager help me reach my goals?

Ongoing communication is key. Be positive, but also genuine, providing constructive criticism as needed. Don’t wait for formal performance review periods, however. Provide your feedback in real time.

Keep in mind that communication flow should be two-way. Millennials want to level the hierarchy and have a voice. Work together to target initiatives these employees feel are a fit for their skills and goals, and, when possible, assign them to leadership positions on project teams. Similarly, collaborate on identifying educational opportunities that can help them build their expertise and learn from different perspectives.

Critically, make sure your technology and financial systems are up to date. The ability to work with the latest tech tools can help influence Gen Y accounting and finance professionals when deciding whether to join and stay with your organization. If you don’t continuously upgrade your systems, you risk experiencing a talent outflow instead of an inflow. Remember, this generation grew up with computer technology and is deeply ingrained with social media. Millennials understand the power of technology and recognize if you’re not current, you’re behind.

Grooming Gen Y Leaders

Give potential leaders you identify not just the chance to lead a project team but also the opportunity to manage key initiatives. This should go beyond just overseeing the day-to-day aspects of a project and also include setting strategy and making decisions.

Fortunately for businesses, a strong desire for continuous learning is another defining characteristic of this demographic. Provide formal and informal training opportunities, focusing on the technical skills Millennials need to advance along with key nontechnical attributes, particularly leadership and communication.

As they progress, incorporate those with the most potential into your succession plans. But don’t stop there. Once you’ve selected succession candidates, sit down to explain the opportunity and why you chose them. Your feedback can help them recognize their strengths and focus on improving any shortcomings, putting them on the path to develop the attributes you seek in your organization’s leaders. Identify specific steps they need to take to advance and partner on tactics for reaching each milestone.

All up-and-coming leaders need mentors. Decide whether you will serve in this role and for which individuals or if you’ll ask a willing senior manager to take on this responsibility. As with employee development, the advisor should help them build both their technical and nontechnical skills. A key area of focus should be managing, including offering guidance on how to motivate people with differing personalities and preferences.

Also consider reverse-mentoring arrangements, where Gen Y staff can mentor more experienced colleagues. For example, a financial analyst could show your chief accounting officer the ropes with new social media platforms or other emerging technologies. This arrangement shows employees you value their expertise and provides them another opportunity to hone their leadership skills.

Focus on team-building, too, including by bringing together workers of all generations. Give your future leaders a chance to network and build rapport with contacts throughout the organization. There’s a lot they can learn about the business from colleagues with diverse backgrounds, work styles and responsibilities.

Much has been written about the Millennial generation. They have unique perspectives and characteristics – just like any workforce demographic – and they are a talented, driven group eager to contribute to an employer they respect and feel is a fit for their career objectives. By understanding their chief workplace concerns, you can help them reach their goals and, at the same time, build the pipeline of leaders for your business.


Paul McDonald is senior executive director with Robert Half, the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm. Over the course of his 30-year career with the company, he has spoken extensively on employment and management issues based on his work with thousands of companies and job seekers. McDonald hosted a panel discussion on Gen Y at the 2014 FEI Summit.