A few days ago a leader (let’s call him Joe) was lamenting to me. “The younger (millennial) generation doesn’t want to work,” he said. “They’re always asking ‘why’ instead of just doing what I tell them. Then if there’s a moment of downtime they’re on their phones doing who-knows-what.” Then he delivered his crescendo, “I should just fire them all and hire older workers. At least I know what I’d get.” I empathized with Joe. He’s not the first leader whose expressed frustration over differences with the younger generations. I’ve spoken to leaders around the country about this topic. The struggle is real.
Before I offered Joe suggestions he asked if I would speak to his employees for him. He said, “You’re a much better communicator than me. I try to tell them why we’re doing things and it doesn’t come out right, then I get frustrated and tell them just do what I told them. I’m good at getting things done, I’m not good at communication.” He was looking for a quick fix instead of improving his leadership. I declined to speak for him, but said I would help him with his communication and leadership skills. I assured him the struggle in his company had more to do with leadership than work ethic.
A few thoughts. Different is just different. It is indifferent until you add the word “bad” or “good.” Yes, millennials want to know why. Yes, they’re on their phones a lot. Yes, their work ethic is different than their predecessors. As leaders we can either fight these facts or work with them. We can ask everyone to conform to our way of thinking or we can use differences to unify our teams. We can dig our feet in the ground and say our way is good and theirs bad. But research shows that, on average, engaged millennials will work 2 hours longer per day than their predecessors. It also shows that if millennials believe in a company’s purpose they will work with greater ferocity. So is the problem work ethic or leadership?
I shared these thoughts with Joe, then asked, “What is the purpose of your company?” He couldn’t give me a clear answer. I asked, “What is your vision/goals?” Again, no clear answer. I asked, “What are your values?” He took a few guesses, then gave up. I looked at Joe kindly and said, “If you don’t improve your leadership, you’ll never have great workers. Great workers are attracted to great leaders.” That is true for Millennials, Generation Xers, Baby Boomers, and the Greatest Generation.
How can any leader lead if they don’t know the purpose, direction, or values of their company? You wouldn’t blame a person for asking, “Where are we going?” if they were riding in a car with you. Why do leaders blame their employees for asking the same about their company? Companies are vehicles meant to take people places. Millennials care more about purpose, direction, and values than money. As leaders, this should be motivation to be clear about where we’re going, not an excuse to criticize the younger generation.
Leadership is based on influence, not control. For those who haven’t figured this out yet: You can’t control people. You can certainly try, but you’ll end up frustrated like Joe. This is why being a leader is the toughest proposition in the world, because to become a great leader you have to constantly work on yourself—your character, communication, and skills. It is an endless journey of growth. The leaders who grow the most influence the most. Those who don’t may be able to grow a company, but they’ll have dramatic turnover and a low quality of life.
Great leaders attract better workers. They get greatness, because they first demand greatness from themselves. We need better leadership to inspire and attract better workers.