The question is: How? To find out, I connected with five leaders at the helm of successful and millennial-dominated companies. Their lessons all reflect powerful insights that are far more about how to lead millennials than about just lamenting what’s wrong.
1. Raise the bar
With 620,000 followers, a podcast garnering one million monthly downloads, and over $100 million in sales through his fitness brands last year, Andy Frisella is more a force of nature than a CEO. In fact, the name of his podcast and website make that point clear: The MFCEO. (You can guess what “MF” stands for.)
However, Frisella’s passion for millennials—which comprise all but five of his 130 employees—stems from a surprising source: empathy. “There are these kids out there who want to be successful,” Frisella told me, “but their entire life they’ve never had to work to be successful. They don’t understand reality. Everyone likes to dog millennials like they’re not as good as previous generations, but the truth is that it’s not millennials who have failed. It’s the people that raised them. It’s us.”
That kind of ownership is why, instead of lowering the bar, Frisella raises it: “They come in at 19 years old; many stay, but obviously some move on. My goal during that time is to make them so good through the challenges of work that they come back and say, ‘That is the best thing that ever f****** happened to me.’”
Pushing back against the “participation award culture” most millennials grew up in, Frisella makes expectations clear. Encouragement is earned, never given. The result is an culture that elevates young workers while also building self-confidence only in a job well done.
2. Cultivate a common passion
In 2005, Jones Soda was a bonafide pop-culture phenomenon. Features in Fast Company, Entrepreneur, and Inc. chronicled the manufacturer’s iconic bottles along with their 30% year-over-year revenue growth.
Then, everything fell apart. Over the next decade, Jones wouldn’t see a single profitable quarter, downsize by 63 percent, and eventually get delisted from NASDAQ. As the fifth CEO in as many years, that’s the landscape Jennifer Cue entered in 2012.
“The situation,” Cue recalls, “demanded creative problem solving and a team that shared a common entrepreneurial spirit.”
So, with a 60% millennial workforce, she led by example. In addition to coming in as CEO “at a very low salary offset by equity,” Cue invested $680,000 of her own money into the company. More vital still, she played to her team’s strengths regardless of their titles and responsibilities.
The lesson: “Trusting and empowering millennials by providing challenges and opportunity for growth leads to an incredible sense of fulfillment. It’s important not to generalize and not to categorize teams by age or demographic. The great thing about Jones is that we all share a common passion for what we’re doing.”
3. Give up control
Handing over the management of 750,000 followers to a college intern sounds like a recipe for disaster. Especially during your company’s most busy time of the year. And yet, that’s exactly what Candice Galek — founder and CEO of Bikini Luxe — does every summer. “With ecommerce, you always have to be on your toes,” the Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient explains, “and having a creative team who’s eager to learn, experiment, and try stuff out is crucial.”
Even riskier is the fact only 8 of Galek’s 48 regular employees and 10 seasonal interns work in the same location she does. Why roll the dice?
In Galek’s words, “We’ve learned to love the creative mindset and flexibility of our primarily millennial team members. Trying to control everything for the sake of quality and branding doesn’t just kill creativity, it crushes the spirit of the people who work for you — regardless of their age.”
Plenty of organizations pay lip service to employee freedom. Giving your people the flexibility to pick where and when they work is a step in the right direction. But the real test comes from giving up control over what you post, publish, share, and even produce. This doesn’t mean weak leadership, but it does mean giving millennials the tools they need to grow … and then letting them.
4. Bring work and play together
Since launching in 2014, Studypool — a 500 Startups-backed learning portal that’s raised $2.5 million in venture capital — has made their vision becoming the Google of academics a reality. Numbers like 40,000 online tutors and over a million student accounts prove it.
Twenty-three years old, CEO Richard Werbe credits being a millennial as part of the reason he’s been so successful: “While people may assume that my age is a deterrent to my ability lead, it’s actually the contrary.” Like its platform, Studypool’s culture embraces a work hard, play hard mentality. “I know the importance of keeping my team passionate about their work and excited to come to come into the office every day.”
While they might sound like small things, Werbe streams music, furnishes a pantry full of snacks, doesn’t enforce a dress code, and provides a game room in the office to blow off steam. He also encourages his team to work remotely whenever possible. “There’s no point in pushing my team to the point where their job becomes something they resent,” Werbe notes, “being close in age to my employees makes me particularly aware of the well-being of my team and how to best keep them focused and enthusiastic.”
5. Help them plan for what’s next
Headquartered in Northern California, Azazie is on a mission to disrupt bridal fashion through affordable customization. With an average employee age of 27, they’re by millennials, for millennials. What’s their secret?
The same tailor-made approach they’ve applied to 300,000 dresses, they also apply to staff. As Rachel Hogue — an early customer service rep turned senior manager —told me, “It’s about setting individual goals and playing to individual strengths.”
Rather than major on quotas, Hogue meets one-on-one with each employee monthly to incorporate their passions and future plans into daily work. By encouraging kindness and open communication, Hogue fosters an environment built on collaboration: “Each of our employees is unique. It’s my job to ensure they feel comfortable to step up, share an idea, and spearhead new initiatives.”
If 300% sales growth in 2017 is any indication, that approach pays off handsomely because “when your employees are happy, they’ll make your customers happy.”
Leading millennials is about leadership
In the end, whether you agree or disagree with the mainstream view on millennials isn’t the point.
So, what is? Perhaps Simon Sinek put it best in the closing lines of Millennials in the Workplace: “We now have a responsibility to make up the shortfall and help this amazing, idealistic, fantastic generation build their confidence, learn patience, learn the social skills, [and] find a better balance between life and technology because quite frankly it’s the right thing to do.”
Even if millennials are the problem… it’s leaders like you who can offer the solution.