Look to Millennials to Lead

August 1, 2014

Millennials — you know who they are.

Authors William Strauss and Neil Howe coined this term in their book, “Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069,” defining them as those born between 1982 and 2004. This is the latest generation that marketers, journalists, psychologists, business schools and PR practitioners love to analyze, criticize and classify.

It makes sense to want to understand a generation whose size — 77 million — is almost equal to the size of the Baby Boomer generation, whose members are retiring at a rate of 10,000 people per day.

Millennials are often negatively portrayed in the many stories written about them. The new blog dcist recently summarized that people often label Millennials as, “competitive and attention-seeking; liars; confused about politics, finances and culture; risk-averse; absolutely screwed; narcissistic, or possibly the greatest generation; cynical do-gooders; the best workers; and are clueless about the job market.”

But consider this: Millennials are the most ethnically and racially diverse generation in America’s history. Of those ages 13-29, 18.5 percent are Hispanic, 14.2 percent are African-American, 4.3 percent are Asian, 3.2 percent are multiracial and 59.8 percent are white — which is a record low.

Millennials are also digital natives, and highly comfortable with using technology.

Rather than disparage Millennials for who we label them to be, we should consider that many of their unique attributes might aid the PR profession in solving some of our biggest problems.

Leadership issues

In 2012, the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at The University of Alabama conducted a study titled Cross Cultural Study of Leadership in Public Relations and Communication Management. After surveying 4,500 PR professionals from 23 nations, the findings reveal that the four biggest issues are:
1. Managing the volume and velocity of information
2. Understanding the role of social media
3. Improving measurement
4. Dealing with fast-moving crises

Additional findings show that digital networks’ impact and massively available real-time information are greatly transforming the practice of contemporary public relations. The Millennials surveyed also ranked issues of social responsibility, transparency, diverse cultures and the ability to create “a greater sense of cultural awareness,” at a higher rate than their senior-level counterparts. 

Thus, Millennials’ positive attributes — being ethnically and racially diverse and being digital natives — situate this generation to lead an organization’s multicultural communications efforts and to heighten an organization’s cultural awareness, positioning them to effectively tackle some of our profession’s big issues.

What makes a leader

Millennials are natural trailblazers and are primed to lead. Rather than only making use of Millennials’ technology and digital media savvy to manage that volume and velocity of information, here’s how to transform Millennial employees from PR technicians to strategic communication managers and leaders.

1.  Empower them.

Millennials are entrepreneurial. They are curious problem-solvers and want to innovate and create. Rather than assigning them repetitive tasks, give them big picture projects that allow them to use their critical thinking skills and let them see that their contribution is part of the bigger strategic plan.

2. Let them choose.

What might be important to you may not be interesting and fulfilling for them. Put all of your projects and ideas on the white board, then let them choose which projects they want to tackle and give them ownership.

3. Show them the path.

The road to leadership starts with successfully managing and completing tasks, then completing entire projects, then managing people and projects and finally strategically managing the vision and mission of a PR department and aligning that with the organization’s goals. Tell Millennials what the path to leadership looks like so that they can choose which direction to take their career.

4. Let them lead.

It’s always difficult to relinquish control and give large and important campaigns to junior staff members. But placing Millennials in the driver’s seat and taking on the role of a team player will enable them to take ownership of the work that they have produced as well as succeed or fail and deal with the consequences.

Dionne C. Clemons, Ph.D.
Dionne C. Clemons, Ph.D., is a strategic communications thought leader and educator. She currently serves as Director of Communications and Community Engagement for the United Planning Organization in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @Drdcclemons.


Bridgette Nicole Borst says:

This was a great read, Dr. Clemons - thank you! I'd love to reach more about your research on Millennials.

Nov. 8, 2014

Walt Gray, APR says:

I'm retired, but always interested in generations and culture in American society. Great insight. Good to know for a community activist who interacts with a number of Millennials.

Nov. 11, 2014

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