How to grow your millennial leaders

21 March 2018 -

Growth of millennial leaders

What incentives do millennial managers respond to most? What do they hate? What will persuade them to stick with you for the long term? A CMI Companions roundtable, held with The Supper Club, unearthed answers

Matthew Rock

Sam Hurst, CEO and founder of Grazing, was recently recruiting for a new role in the the fast-growing catering business. Coming towards the end of the interview, Hurst asked the candidate what was his long-term goal. “I want your job,” the young applicant replied.

Hurst loved his answer, and gave him the job. “I knew I’d unearthed a gem,” he says.

In general, it takes way more time and effort to identify and grow the next generation of leaders. The process is complicated because millennials and Gen Y recruits are stereotyped as narcissistic, short-term thinkers with a powerful sense of entitlement.

To coincide with CMI’s 21st Century Leaders report and the new Talent Tactics study, CMI and The Supper Club held a special Companions roundtable, “How to grow millennial leaders”, to address:


  1. The challenges for employers looking to develop millennial leaders
  2. How to overcome challenges with an entrepreneurial mind-set
  3. Models and tactics for developing management skills in potential millennial leaders.


Here are some of the roundtable highlights:

“Make a good first impression.”

Duncan Cheatle, founder of the Supper Club, referenced data that 78% of people who leave an organisation in their first six months decide to do so within their first 48 hours. For any employer keen to hang onto millennial and ambitious talent, this is worth thinking about. Do you, as the manager or boss, make time to see people as soon as they arrive? How good are your induction and onboarding processes? Do you give recruits the tools to do their work effectively – are you asking them to use clunky, outdated apps, for example? These are particularly off-putting for millennials who expect to see technology that’s good as they use in their personal life. Lots of research points to the positive impact of a pleasant, healthy workplace; nice kitchens are particularly popular.

And what kind of language do you use? Many smart businesses are moving away from having “line managers” and, rather, have “personal development managers.” These kind of touches and first impressions might just convince a new recruit that they’ve found themselves in the right place. One guest recalled the worst induction he ever had, during which he was given a “ten Commandments” document. Hardly empowering...

“Give the employee autonomy to direct their own learning.”

This really got guests talking. Cain Ullah is the co-founder of digital consultancy Red Badger, and employees in his company receive an annual £2,000 allowance for training and development. They can use it as they please. “If they want to go off to a conference in America, that’s fine,” he laughs. The important thing is that they do actually use it, and keep on learning. Interestingly, one of the most popular pages on CMI’s own website is dedicated to “personal development plans” – it’s clearly top of the priority list for newcomers to the workforce.

Ullah brought another powerful insight to the table. “We almost train people to leave,” he said. At Red Badger, training is about developing skills that most benefit the employee themselves, not specifically the business’s needs. “For many younger people, ambition is the speed at which they can learn; it’s not about money”. For Red Badger and many fast-growth companies, the management challenge is primarily around setting people new challenges, rather than asking them to repeat tasks and challenges that they’ve already mastered. The author Daniel Pink’s mantra of “autonomy, mastery and purpose” is a big influence at Red Badger and many other high-growth firms.

“If employees behave more like freelance consultants, who is going to lead our businesses in the future?”

Alex Evans, programme director at The Supper Club, posed a powerful central question. Successful, sustainable organisations need a core group of people who subscribe to and live out their values. To foster such people, an organisation needs a clear mission that is powerfully articulated by its founders and/or leaders. Look at the “Our story” section of a successful company’s website to see how this is done.

“Accept churn”.

Sam Hurst, founder of Grazing, has a zesty and pragmatic view of employee churn: accept it. It’s inevitable that people will leave, he insists. Some, you’ll be okay with it; others, you’ll be massively disappointed. As an employer, you need to reframe your attitude towards churn. “People leave because they think the grass is greener elsewhere,” says Hurst. “It’s often around the three-year mark when they look to re-energise themselves. We look at it as: ‘we’ve got 1,000 days out of them’ and we usually leave the door open for them to come back.” Cain Ullah puts it simply: “it’s good to have a healthy turnover of talent.”

“Don’t overstate your purpose.”

The big word in talent acquisition circles is “authenticity.” Leaders are encouraged to be themselves. New recruits will spot it easily if there’s a mismatch between your claims and your real company culture. There are sites such as Glassdoor on which existing and former employees can post their views (anonymously) so there’s no point in pretending you’re something you’re not. Ari Ratnakumar worked in the City before founding Wiser, which develops employer brands so that companies can recruit the best millennial talent. “Many big corporates try to change their culture, but you can tell they don’t mean it,” he observes. “You don’t need a big grand purpose – it can be as simple as ‘we’re here to have fun’ – but you need to believe in it.”

“Identify the keepers”.

So you’ve identified new talent, you’ve made sure your organisation’s mission aligns with their values; you’ve made a great first impression and you’ve bedded them into your culture of continual learning; and even though you’ve invested in their development, you’ve even allowed some people to move on.

But sometimes, you need to take a different tack.

“Sometimes you do identify ‘the keepers’,” says Hurst. While you must be careful not to be seen to have favourites, you will occasionally spot people who, you know, have a long-term role to play in your organisation. “Sometimes they don’t even know it themselves,” smiles Hurst. “A great example is someone who was in client services who had an interest in cooking and wanted to work in the kitchen once a week. She’s now our sous chef and she has what it takes to be a head chef one day. It took three years, but she is loyal, knows the business, and what she doesn’t know we can train.”

Now watch millennial entrepreneurs talk leadership on video

You can download the Supper Club’s Talent Tactics report featuring many entrepreneurial approaches to a 21st century workforce.

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