I was born in 1981, graduated high school in 1999, finished college in 2003, and have been in the workforce for the past 14 years. I’m right on the older cusp of the spectrum, but for all intents and purposes, I am a Millennial. Earlier in my career, I was a Millennial blogger and trainer, researching the generation and helping them adjust to their new life in the workplace. Back in 2008, I led a group of younger peers through a training called “What Not to Do at the Holiday Party!” which covered a wide range of topics like bringing guests, attire, and much more. I remember creating this training because there wasn’t anybody locally who was speaking to my generation about the necessities of professionalism, and I really just wanted to help my peers not make fools out of themselves.
While I’ve spent a good deal of my career helping Millennials move into the workforce, I’ve noticed that there is a growing effort on the part of other generations (Boomers and GenXers) to understand the needs, desires, and behaviors of Millennials as they move along the various life stages and rites of passage of adulthood. For example, ACSI recently published a two-part blog series discussing recent research on Millennial parents and how they relate to Christian schooling. But understanding “what makes Millennials tick” is also helpful when you think about the Millennial teachers and administrators in your school. The purpose of this blog post is to provide some context, practical suggestions, and (hopefully) insight on how to work across generations successfully.
Millennials in the Christian Workplace
For the Christian school and organization context, we first must remember the WHO at the top of the letterhead. Jesus always should reign supreme in everything we do, and His teaching should always be the barometer by which we tackle touchy workplace issues like accountability, respect, admiration, and conduct. As believers we are called to live at peace with all (Romans 12:18), dwell together in unity (Psalm 133:1), and honor others above ourselves (Romans 12:10). Imagine if we focused on strengthening the positive, embracing the different, and limiting the negative when it comes to working intergenerationally.
In order for this to happen, we need to love one another, for love is of God (1 John 4:17). In the Christian workplace, this means that people in younger generations need to learn to adapt to their work environment, while those in older generations need to welcome the differences of the incoming and upcoming generations. Here are three specific suggestions for doing just that.
Suggestion 1: Include Millennials in Future-Based Conversations
You know those leadership meetings where you’re trying to figure out how to grow the school, but you look around and there isn’t a single person representing your target demographic? If you want to know what the school is going to look like in 10 years, and how to create a culture relevant for that time, it’s a good idea to ask the Millennials in your midst. This means including them in the conversations and ongoing dialogue you’re having as a leadership team. Millennial team members will feel incredibly valued, included, and honored, and will take it seriously.
Here’s a specific example. Imagine what just five more families enrolling in your school would mean next year. Tagging a Millennial as you’re thinking about next year’s marketing activities may not only foster new ideas and creative approaches, but also offer opportunities to learn how to connect with your target market. (Millennial employees are just as burdened with the same kinds of financial pressures, and the desire to be convinced of educational ROI, as the prospective Millennial parents in your community.) As a second ACSI blog post on the positive impact of Millennials suggests, Millennial educators can truly benefit Christian schools in a number of ways, including generating solutions to enrollment and other contemporary challenges.
When you invite them in, though, be aware that Millennials may want to approach challenges and opportunities differently—and that can be a good thing. Students look a lot different today than 20 years ago, as do classrooms, attention spans, and parent-teacher dynamics. Millennial school leaders and teachers all share the same goal with previous generations of Christian school educators, but they may teach differently (to students who learn differently) and lead differently (with parents and employees who think differently). They tend toward collaboration, innovation, and differentiating their style of teaching and leading, and even wanting to reshape their work environments. (See the recent ACSI blog post on the benefits of the open or flexible office.) While their approaches may look different from what the “norm” has been in years past, they are still aligned with the goals and objectives of the school or organization.
Suggestion 2: Spend Time Mentoring Millennials
Leadership involves feedback, opportunities, and invested time. Think of how Jesus poured into the disciples. He was with them, mentored them, and gave them opportunities to see how to handle things, learn about why He did it the way He did, gave them opportunities to do it alongside Him, and then released them to do it again and again. He poured into each and every one of them, according to each one’s gifts and thick-headedness. Like every generation, Millennials certainly have their fair share of Saul’s egotistic “I-know-everything” dynamic that needed God’s grace to transform him to Paul (though recent research is now showing that Millennials aren’t necessarily more narcissistic than other generations, as popularly thought). We certainly have to learn from our mistakes, just like Peter—who denied Jesus, even after Jesus worked miracles with him.
To pull us in and help us be productive, you have to be willing to invest time and energy with us. We crave ongoing feedback (not just once a year during annual reviews). This can be challenging given how busy leaders’ schedules are, but we will take as much time as you can give! We also want authentic opportunities to try solving problems, so consider what opportunities you have that you could open up to younger staff. Maybe there are problems around the school that you could give to a Millennial to solve, or perhaps there’s that difficult issue or situation that you need a fresh set of eyes on. We’re going to have to figure out how to handle situations like these one day, so consider how to involve us, invest in us, and grow us.
Suggestion 3: Embrace Our Differences
An insightful Gallup article on Millennials (who have grown to make up 38% of the U.S. workforce) suggests that only 6% of school leaders think their districts understand Millennials! Leading Millennials effectively requires that leaders understand a few key things. First, it’s important to know what motivates us. Millennials are more apt to get behind causes than cash. At one point in my life I opted to pursue a job that paid 50% of what I was previously making—because I believed in the mission more than the money. For this reason, instead of a boss or supervisor, Millennials are looking for coaches who can take individual goals and align them to the organizational outcomes. Personally, I can attest that I highly value somebody who wants to learn about me and help me accomplish all my goals—while showing me how those goals connect to the larger vision that we’re all trying to accomplish.
It’s hard to write—and it may be hard for some to read—but here’s something that Millennials desperately want other generations to know: we want to focus on meaningful work, and not on appearances. This is true regarding what many jokingly refer to as the “Millennial uniform” (tattoos, beards, and informal dress), but also about the ways we work most productively (listening to music, personalizing our work spaces, and holding frequent and informal brainstorming sessions). Ultimately, these differences have nothing to do with either motivation or effectiveness—any more than singing contemporary worship music instead of hymns reflects a difference in the discipleship process.
Using that example, to figure out whether someone is growing as a disciple of Jesus you’d have to look at the fruit of that person’s life; the same is true to gauge the success of Millennials. You can help us grow by focusing more on our outcomes—holding us accountable for productivity, setting benchmarks, and checking in on progress—than how we get there (or what we look like getting there). If our methods or preferences puzzle you, feel free to ask. (Most of us would be happy to share that we use tattoos as an evangelism tool to lead others to Jesus!) Just as contemporary worship and hymns are different styles of music that still point to the same timeless, eternal truth, so too are the different work styles of different generations of Christian educators. Though we may look and do things differently, we are all equally focused on training up the next generation of young people for Christ.
Communicate … and Get Going!
As John Barrows writes in an insightful Harvard Business Review piece, when it comes to Millennials and other generations working together, it’s a good idea for everyone to “shelve the ego—and communicate.” Communication is a key piece to building successful intergenerational teams, on which Millennials can serve as valuable members, working together for a common goal. If you haven’t already, now is a great time to begin a dialogue in your school about how to engage Millennial teachers and leaders in the school’s missional work.
Christian education certainly has ample challenges to address and overcome, and working across the generations will only strengthen our ability to come together for such a time as this. Speaking as a Millennial, bring me along on a visionary journey for the whole organization, provide a path to success, give me opportunities to grow, check in with my walk with the Lord—and let’s go!
About the Author:
Ryan E. Cole is the ACSI marketing manager. His extensive career has included motivational speaking to high school students, providing career advice and coaching for young adults, running a social media ad agency, and leading major changes within nonprofit organizations. He currently spends most of his time with his wife, Kelsi, and young daughter, Kennedy, nesting and getting ready for their son this February. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.