Millennials into Managers: 5 Steps to Building the Next Generation of Leaders 

By Bruce Tulgan, excerpted from Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials 

Millennials want more status, authority, rewards,” said one senior engineer in a major electrical products company. “But they don’t want the additional responsibilities of being in management roles. We give a junior engineer the big promotion, make him an engineering supervisor, and he keeps acting like he’s just a project engineer. He acts like nothing has changed. They don’t step into that role. There is a big leadership gap, especially at those lower levels. How are we supposed to find those people who have sufficient technical skill to be in charge of an engineering project but are also suited for leadership?” 

How many people have both the technical ability and the desire and ability to lead? 

What usually happens is this. Those who are very good at their jobs (those with technical ability) are given more and more work. Over time, they need people to help them. If they are willing and available, these people are given supervisory responsibilities, sometimes informally at first. Eventually they become managers and are taught how to complete the additional paperwork that comes with their managerial responsibilities. But they are rarely taught how to be a manager. Instead, they develop their own management styles on an ad hoc basis, struggle, and finally conclude they are not management material. Usually they are stuck, in one organization or another, struggling with management responsibilities that nobody ever really taught them how to handle. They go through their careers thinking, “I’m not a natural leader. I’m a…” (You fill in the blank: accountant, engineer, doctor, chef.) 

Over the years, some business leaders have tried to fight this conundrum by creating technical tracks and manager tracks. The idea is that those who are great technicians can continue growing as technicians, while the “people people” are encouraged to follow the manager track instead. The problem with this strategy is that if an individual doesn’t have the technical talent, he will have a lack of credibility when it comes to playing the manager role. Who is going to manage an accountant but an accountant? Who is going to manage a doctor but a doctor? Who is going to manage a chef but a chef? 

That’s why, when you are looking for new leaders, you have to focus first and foremost on those with real technical talent, those who are really good at their jobs. These are the individuals who have demonstrated their commitment to their work and careers. That commitment is the first essential piece when it comes to identifying new prospects for leadership roles. 

The problem is, especially among the best Millennial technical talent, that there are a lot of people who are committed to their work and career but are reluctant to take on supervisory roles. Why? The main reason, according to our research, is that they can see with their own eyes the experience of their own managers and their slightly more advanced peers. What they see is that managers, especially new managers, are often given loads of additional responsibility with very little additional support. 

2.8Millennials_into_Managers-03.pngOften when Millennials are given their first chance to lead a team or a project, they find themselves managing people—temporarily or longer term—who were their peers the day before. Sometimes those “peers” are the same age, sometimes older, sometimes their friends. Without support and guidance from above, Millennials often have a hard time establishing their credibility and getting others to respect their new authority. One Millennial explained: “All of a sudden you go from being one of the guys to being the project leader. You are supposed to be in charge, but everybody is looking at you like you are exactly the same person you were before. It’s pretty hard to establish your authority in that situation. They are all looking at you like, ‘Okay, are you going to start acting like you think you are my boss all of a sudden?’” Under these circumstances, new managers are likely to soft-pedal their authority with some people and lean on others disproportionately; to gravitate to friendly faces and avoid unfriendly ones; and to fall back on cliques and ringleaders in order to exercise any power at all. It’s true that sometimes Millennials thrust into leadership roles without support land on their feet. But usually this is a setup for frustration and failure. 

Is it true that some people are naturally cut out for leadership while others are not? Maybe. But I think that if natural leaders really exist, they are extremely rare. Very few people are endowed with that special brand of charisma, passion, infectious enthusiasm, and contagious energy that inspires and motivates people. No organization can afford to wait for those rare natural leaders to come along and fill each supervisory role, especially if they also need to have good technical skills and a proven commitment to their work and career. Frankly, I don’t think charisma, passion, enthusiasm, and energy are traits that can be learned. Either you have them or you don’t. What is more, I’m absolutely convinced that these “natural leadership” traits are not what most new managers need in order to succeed. 

What do new managers need? They need support and guidance in learning and practicing the basics of management.  

When you ask a young star to step up and make the transition to a leadership role—at any level—you owe it to that new leader and her team to make sure that she is fully prepared to take on additional responsibilities and authority. Teach new leaders how to do the people work, and then support and guide them in this new role every step of the way:  

  1. Explain that this new role carries with it real authority, that it does not award her license, of course, to act like a jerk. It is a huge responsibility that should not be accepted lightly. 

  2. Spell out for the new leader exactly what her new leadership responsibilities look like. Explain that management entails more than completing some extra paperwork. You have to explain the “people work” in detail. Create standard operating procedures for managing, and teach them to all new leaders. Focus on the basics, like spelling out expectations for every employee who works for them, following up regularly, tracking performance closely in writing, and holding people accountable. 

  3. Make sure you formally deputize any new leader, no matter how small the project or how short the duration of the leadership role. Don’t just whisper it in the new leader’s ear: “I want you to take charge of this project and make sure everyone on the team pulls his weight.” You need to announce the new leadership to the whole team, articulate the nature of this person’s new authority, and explain the standard operating procedures for management that you have asked the new leader to follow. 

  4. Check in daily (or every other day) with this new leader. Regularly walk through the standard operating procedures for managing people. Ask about the management challenges she is probably facing. At first, you might want to sit in on the new leader’s team meetings and one-on-ones with team members in order to build up this new leader. Do everything you can to reinforce her authority with the team and every individual on the team. But make sure to take every opportunity you can to help the new leader refine and improve her management techniques. 

  5. Pay close attention every step of the way, and evaluate the new leader in her new role. Some new leaders will practice the basics with great discipline; some won’t. Some will be consistent in their application of the basics; some won’t. Some will grow comfortable in their new leadership roles; some won’t. And some will simply fail in the leadership role. But it turns out that with the right amount of guidance and support, most people who are very good at their jobs and committed to their work and career have the ability to grow into strong competent leaders. 


With this kind of sustained low-tech, hands-on leadership development effort and constant evaluation, you can develop your future leaders. Who will move along that path and grow into a high-level leader? Don’t look for those Millennials who are comfortable slapping people down. Don’t look for those who love the power. Don’t look for the biggest egos or the loudest, most confident voices. Don’t be lured by charisma, passion, enthusiasm, and energy. 

Look for Millennials who love the responsibility and the service. Look for those who consistently practice the basics of management with discipline. Look for those who spend the most time patiently teaching. Look for those who want to lift people up and make them better. They will likely be your future leaders.  


2.8_BruceTulgan_headshot.jpgBruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), , and It’s Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website


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