Tips to Engage Millennials

How to train Millennials for complex tasks by breaking them down into smaller ones

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Millennials, especially the best and brightest, are eager to hit the ground running and take on more and more challenges and responsibility. This is what a Millennial recently told me: "You want me to be really into this job, right? You want me to love it? Then make it lovable. I'm not going to be all fired up about doing the same thing day after day. Give me a challenge. Give me a chance to do something bigger and better. I'm willing to work my ass off. But give me something I can be fired up about."

This kind of enthusiasm and desire to take on challenges is extremely valuable, but it also puts a huge amount of pressure on Millennials' immediate supervisors. The senior manager in the buying organization of a large retail chain shared this experience: "One of my direct reports always tells me, 'I've done that before,' as if that is a good reason for me to give her a different assignment. `I am giving you this assignment, because you know how to do it,' I say. But I know what she really means is that she is not feeling challenged. She'll work more than most of the people around here. If I am going to take advantage of her willingness to take on these new challenges, I have to find the time to teach her. I can't just give her a new challenge and say, 'Go for it.'"

Millennials, especially the most capable and ambitious among them, push hard for more significant roles with increased responsibilities at much earlier stages in their careers than new young workers of generations past. It's not just misplaced arrogance on their part, but rather a result of their natural adaptation to the information environment. The nature of professional learning today is a continuous just-in-time all-the-time endeavor. Millennials have never known it any other way. That's why they are always in a hurry to advance to the next skill set or the next task, responsibility, or project -- even when they seem clearly not ready from your perspective.

I've been told that by leaders in supermarkets and nuclear weapons labs, and everybody in between. We call this the "meaningful roles problem." The simple fact is that if it takes you months or years to get Millennials up to speed and into meaningful roles on your team, then you'll have serious problems keeping high-potential Millennials engaged and growing. Don't tell me you are struggling to manage and retain the best Millennials and then tell me it's going to take months or years before they can do important work that allows their coworkers and bosses to take them seriously.

How can you handle this conundrum? You may have to unbundle complex roles and then rebuild them one tiny piece at a time. You can give Millennials meaningful work at early stages in their tenure if you commit to teaching and transferring to them one small task or responsibility at a time. Here is a great example that the same engineering group leader from that nuclear weapons research laboratory shared with me: "I learned from the mechanics here who are short-staffed. They teach new mechanics to do one simple task very well. Then, after the new mechanics do that task for a few days, they add another simple task, and so on. After a few weeks, the new mechanics have a dozen things they can do pretty well, and they are full-fledged members of the team, but with a much smaller repertoire. The really ambitious ones keep adding one skill after another and build pretty big repertoires within a few months. So I decided to do that with my new project engineers. I give them one tiny little piece of the project. I'll sit with them and teach, then let them have a tiny little piece of work. When they get that tiny little piece of work done, I'll teach them another piece. And another. It is very effective with the new young engineers. They actually like it this way. They are doing less, but they feel like they are doing more."

It may be very high-tech work they are doing in that nuclear weapons lab, but this is low-tech training at its best. Remember that Millennials want to learn from people, not just from computers. If you are willing to be the teacher, you can support Millennials in their desire to acquire the ability to learn new things very quickly. You can train them the old-fashioned way in short-term stages that track directly with adjustments in their day-to-day responsibilities. Every new task turns into a proving ground, which enables them to demonstrate proficiency and earn more responsibility right away. I realize this approach to training Millennials requires a high degree of engagement and ongoing teaching and managing. But that's how you can keep Millennials growing fast over the first, and the second, and the third year. Who knows? You might even be able to help them gain depth and wisdom way beyond their years.

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an on-line training company. Bruce is the bestselling author of numerous books including The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (2009), and It's Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by email at [email protected], you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website