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Home / Resources / How to develop millennials as successful leaders

How to develop millennials as successful leaders


Developing the next generation of leaders in an organisation is central to its growth. This has always been the case but today, the challenge is different. Why?

Because the workplace has changed – and not just in terms of technology and other social developments.

People have changed, values have changed, and the main drivers of this change are the millennials who are being handed the leadership baton. 

Developing millennials as leaders: The challenges

The problem, according to a Deloitte survey in 2016, is that millennials aren’t particularly loyal to their employer and won’t stick around if they’re not happy. Keeping them engaged so that they want to stay long enough to become leaders is the first challenge. The second one is: How do you go about developing the promising millennials who do stay, into leaders?

The leadership training that worked for previous generations is unlikely to work for those born between 1982 and 2004. To develop millennials as leaders, you’ll first need to know what makes them tick. 

7 things that matter to millennials

According to the Millennial Leadership Study by, 91% of millennials aspire to be leaders, which is great. However, their idea of how a leader should be is entirely different to how they perceive today’s leaders to be. 

In his article on what makes millennials different, Frank Sofia says the impact of these differences is real. Sofia, himself a millennial, is Director of HR of North America Sales at SAP. This is what he says about millennials:

  • They are collaborative and believe in empowering others. 
  • They value an open, transparent and inclusive leadership style. 
  • They want to make an impact in the world and want to work for companies that give back. 
  • They want rapid career development and opportunities that help them to grow.
  • They seek a work-life balance and workplace flexibility. 
  • They regard diversity as essential for a company to succeed.
  • They embrace digital technologies and believe they’re a force for good.

"In a nutshell, millennials want their work to be a positive emotional experience."

But that’s not all. Leadership coach, Shelley Danner explains in How to Develop Millennial Leaders that emerging leaders are more motivated if they understand the context in which they work. They like to see the bigger picture of how their role is contributing.

They also like to feel a sense of accomplishment. Danner therefore recommends that organisations provide well-defined ongoing metrics so they know what’s required in order to meet expectations and what it takes to exceed them. They need feedback.

In their research, Deloitte re-affirms that “millennials want leaders focused on ‘soft’ concerns such as well-being and employee development. They want ‘true leaders’ with vision, passion, decisiveness and who can inspire. Only one in 10 felt that ‘true leaders’ – who they aspire to be – are solely focused on financial results.

Indeed, millennials are unlikely to stay long at a place where profits are everything. Rather, they aspire to work for companies with a sense of community responsibility.  In a nutshell, millennials want their work to be a positive emotional experience.

5 ways to engage

Dr Larry Richard, a doctor of psychology, points to research that shows the science behind engagement. To keep millennials engaged, they need to feel a sense of autonomy (allow them to have some influence and a role in decision-making); meaning & purpose (explain the context); social connection (encourage collaboration); competence, mastery & achievement (have an ongoing training & development programme); and respect and gratitude (say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ – and mean it). 

  • Autonomy
  • Meaning and purpose
  • Social connection
  • Competence, mastery and achievement
  • Respect and gratitude  

Mind the gap

With the clock ticking towards a looming leadership gap, it might be time to listen and adapt to the millennials’ way of thinking. For some organisations, this could even mean a complete overhaul of the existing culture, a systemic change to reflect the new attitudes.

On an individual level, millennials enjoy a customised developmental path tailored to best support them. There could even be a case for introducing ongoing developmental training for all staff, giving everyone the same chance to grow. Managing employee performance on an ongoing basis keeps millennials engaged and inspired. The training, in part at least, will need to be personalised and adaptable, which is where digital learning comes into its own.

For example, online scenarios with different pathways, enables people to make decisions and see the impact. It’s a chance for them to practice leadership skills, allowing for creativity and for mistakes they can learn from.  And they can do it on the job. It’s the kind of learning that tech-savvy millennials expect to run alongside a programme of mentoring, shadowing ‘in real life’ and other developmental opportunities.

Sponge developed a bespoke leadership development programme such as this for the UK’s Royal Mail, using interactive branching video – with startling results, changing behaviours in almost all participants. 

Tellingly, in the survey, most millennials (68%) said they wanted their leadership training to be online. Yet many organisations still aren’t responding.

It’s another example of how, in some respects, millennials are already leading the way.