What to do about millennials? A term, if mentioned to many senior leaders, likely to engender the full gambit of responses from evangelical levels of praise to eye-rolling and less than complimentary observations around entitlement, a lack of loyalty and table tennis.


Millennials as a group are generally considered to be people born from the early 1980s until the mid-1990s or even the early 2000s. Opinions on the date range differ. Regardless, as a group, they are laden with assumptions, particularly around their perceived behaviours and values, both good and less good.


There is plenty of research on the subject and a multitude of articles and papers on the behaviours and values of ‘the millennial’. This group now spans the full range of the corporate ladder up to and including the C-suite and will very soon form most of the active workforce.


The food industry, like many, has had to change to meet the needs of the millennial, particularly given their new primacy in consumer buying power, a predilection for eating out and apparent love of avocado. In parallel, the challenge of retaining and leading millennials in the workplace now focuses the mind of CEOs looking to the future development of their key employees and growth of their businesses.


This leads us neatly onto star signs. Unless you happen to believe in star signs then one really shouldn’t believe in millennials as a behavioural group in the workplace. Does a birth date range really influence behaviours? Define the values and behaviours of an entire age range group? Everywhere? Nonsense, surely? Obviously, birth within a date range can influence an individual’s life experiences and have some influence but this sits within an innumerable number of other factors.


While useful for general consumer insight, such as a willingness to buy online, age-based behavioural models tell us very little indeed about what it takes to retain and lead them as individual employees.




So, if leading millennials as a group doesn’t work, then how do you lead millennial age employees at all? Simply put, there is no secret formula. Do the fundamentals well at every level of the organisation irrespective of the employee age, or anything else for that matter. Straightforward, but not easy.


Speaking to Amy, a brand manager with a leading food and drinks company at the lower end of the millennial age bracket, she illustrates the point. “I want to be developed and given the opportunity to build my experience. My manager is really good at following up on my reviews which is good. I do feel valued and the company is diverse, so I get plenty of opportunities to travel and do different things. The job is fun, but I want to take on more responsibility soon.”


Note ‘reviews’, ‘follow up’ and ‘valued’.


It’s easy to home in on ‘diverse’, ‘fun’ and ‘travel’ and immediately implement a bunch of employee benefits, reinforcing the narrative about millennials as an age group, while missing the unique qualities and needs of individuals.


“Treating millennials any differently is expedient ‘leadership by numbers”


Moreover, it could be easy for the busy leader to ignore the arguably harder work of performance management and development of individual employees, as well as the fundamental competencies and behaviours required from leaders at every level of the organisation to lead their employees, regardless of their age, gender or any other discriminator.


Treating millennials any differently, trying to treat them as a group in contrast to any other group, is an expedient ‘leadership by numbers’ and entirely transparent option. No-one, from Boomers to Gen Z, enjoys being treated like a number. Part of a leader’s tool kit must be the ability to communicate clearly, to understand an individual’s rather than a perceived demographic group’s motivation and to jointly build a plan that meets these individual needs, as well as the organisation’s strategy, desired behaviours and, ultimately, objectives.


To quote one of my fellow coaches at The Preston Associates, and also former Danone executive committee member, Flemming Morgan: “The food industry is undergoing a major transformation as consumers choose brands that are more local and environmentally friendly, rejecting the ‘global’ one-size-fits-all concept that has been so successful for the last 30 years.


“At the same time, people are increasingly looking to work for organisations that have a strong sense of purpose and where they feel they have the freedom to make an impact. For a coach, guiding leaders on how to motivate such people, irrespective of age, is both challenging as well as highly rewarding.”


With Generation Z now joining the workplace and the end of the millennial as the ‘new batch’, what about those millennials who are now senior executives, leading others? How are they bringing their unique perspective to bear?


Melissa, 31, a sales director at a FTSE top ten FMCG company says: “When I think about myself as a leader I have never once identified as a ‘millennial leader’. I have always found my age irrelevant to my role. What matters is the experience you bring (credibility) and authenticity or, put more simply, who you are as a leader / your leadership identity.


“I find it contradictory when I see thought leadership pieces or strategies for retention on the ‘millennial leader’, particularly when set against a backdrop of established and proved leadership ideologies; diversity and inclusion as an example. To me, organisations that embrace the diversity and individuality of their leaders and treat them as individuals are the ones that will continue to win.”



None of this is new and every generation throughout written history seems to make collective assumptions about the next generation and have concerns they are not up to dealing with the challenges the world will throw at them. Too entitled, opinionated, impatient, emotionally vulnerable or lacking in psychological resilience.


“[Young people] are high-minded because they have not yet been humbled by life, nor have they experienced the force of circumstances…They think they know everything and are always quite sure about it.” So said Aristotle in 4th century BC.


If this were not enough, millennials even have a new moniker – ‘snowflakes’. Stereotyping a whole generation by dismissively suggesting they have no grit prevents experienced leaders from taking the time to lead and coach them as individuals. If we are not careful the so-called snowflakes will begin to see experienced leaders as the slush on the side of the road rather than the snow canons who can provide energy and direction.


In some circumstances, snowflakes do melt. And yet they can also remain perfectly formed if the conditions that surround them can flex to their needs. Just like any other age group.