Millennials are the future. Without them we have no future. That’s a literal, yet powerful statement. I discussed in a previous post how many Generation X’ers and Baby Boomers have become good at labeling different behavior, or perhaps more accurately behavior we don’t understand as a result of a person belonging to the Millennial generation. This seems terribly unfair, and generally inaccurate, however, our perceptions define our reality and people will become what we label them. Rather than label an entire generation based on perceptions and myths, let’s instead focus on developing this group as our next generation of leaders in the workforce.

Many of our young workforce members have a specific set of expectations about work, and have been able to more clearly define them when compared to other generations. For example, that may mean lots of value being placed on personal learning and development, flexibility to work in a manner that feels good to them, and the desire to do work that has a positive impact in the workplace, as well as the broader community. There is also the expectation of having open and honest dialogue about aspirations with consistent feedback about their work product. The latter may be the most challenging for traditional law firms as that is generally not the model we follow, or are particularly good at doing. In thinking about these expectations, I believe they are the working conditions all generations have desired and aspired to when they began a career path. I find it interesting and hopeful to consider that some of the values that Gen X’ers and Baby Boomers share may not be that different from the Millennials after all.

If the current generations in our legal organizations are more alike than different, then leadership development and mentorship of our young colleagues is a challenge that I am confident we can overcome. To begin that type of a relationship, consider the think big and act small approach that starts with envisioning the bigger picture of what you hope to accomplish followed by proactive steps you can take to build relationship with a young colleague. For example, based on what we know generally about Millennials it is paramount to show up and be authentic with them, to engage in conversations about purpose, and to ask questions of what they hope to get out of mentorship. We should also consider ways to empower them for success, and to provide the opportunity to practice and play in the leadership skills they are learning. The last is possibly the most crucial component as we simply cannot grow and strengthen the skills that we do not exercise and stretch.

Lastly, Gen X’ers and Baby Boomers would do well to remember what it was like in their 20’s, as that perspective is an important and powerful recall tool. It will reveal that it is not a lack of work ethic by our future leaders, rather a lack of understanding, that creates the misperceptions we have labeled them with. As for Millennials, they should not worry about having all the answers, and be open to learning from those who have gone before them. Moving towards the middle by these groups would create the opportunity for growth and understanding on both sides that will ultimately build relationships and result in high-performing teams.

Garry Wills in Certain Trumpets summarized leadership in an interesting way that I believe applies to the challenges we face today. He said, “Not many of us will be leaders; and even those who are leaders must also be followers much of the time. This is the crucial role. Followers judge leaders. Only if the leaders pass that test do they have any impact. The potential followers, if their judgment is poor, have judged themselves. If the leader takes his or her followers to the goal, to great achievements, it is because the followers were capable of that kind of response.” Consider taking the first step by asking a Millennial what they think about a project or challenge you or your team are facing, then listen and be prepared to engage as you may have the opportunity to encourage today’s followers to become tomorrow’s leaders.