Listen and give them feedback.

Millennials want to have freedom and, ironically, want coaching at the same time. They want that blank canvas and also want to be given feedback. Lead them based on what you know and turn them loose with the understanding that you are there to provide direction and they will do great things.

It reminds me of some contract work I had many years ago when a client said to me at the beginning of the project: “I am going to tell you my expectations, pay you what you want, and call me if you need any feedback. Otherwise, I’ll only be in contact about once a month to check in.”

It was the most freeing, liberating, yet terrifying moment in my consulting career. I was certainly motivated, though, to give this client results based on the relationship parameters he had given me.

The job was to build an online education platform. I’d sit at my desk in the house I lived in at the top of a hill and look out the window and watch cars go by. Just as he said, once a month he’d check in and ask how things were going. I had absolutely nothing figured out or accomplished but I would say to him “it is going to be great, you are going to love this.” The same thing happened the next month. Finally, after month three, still with no real progress, I decided to call the only person in my life who could actually help me through this. My mother.

I started the call by saying “mom, I don’t need you to tell me how great I am, I need you to listen and just be my mom.” We had reached an interesting point in life where she was winding down a career in education and I was just taking off. She was great about listening to my “plans” and the ups and downs that go along with the “plans” and was also careful to give feedback as she knew I needed to find my way through this.

I’m ambitious and I believe innovation (in business) sometimes means taking the leap even if you are just 90% of the way there. I told her I thought I had finally promised something I couldn’t deliver. I explained the story and she replied, “son, you need to shut down your computer, go outside, walk around, and become aware of the things that are right in front of you that will help you create what it is you want to create.”

I thought to myself, this is the best feedback you could offer and without anything else, I followed it.

Later that day, my wife came home from her job teaching fourth graders at a local elementary school. I was sitting there literally with my hands in my head when she put her books down on the table and a flip chart fell out in front of me. I started examining it. It was called Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is a noted, step-by-step process explaining the hierarchy of how people process information. I had been exposed to it many years ago, but through the many stops and starts in life, lost it along the way.

At the lowest level is remembering and at the highest level is synthesis. “What is this?” I asked. She explained to me what it was. I started thinking about what my mother said and it came to me – pay attention to the things that are right in front of you.

I went directly to my office and wrote the entire platform based on the framework in a few hours. “Remember the first time you played football, what that felt like,” it began. Next came applying and then understanding and on and on it went. I completed the project, citing Bloom as the basis point, and sent the straw man to my client. I’ll never forget when he called me excitedly to tell me, “this is why we hired you, this is exactly what we needed.”

I learned three valuable lessons from that experience. First, call your mother. Second, frameworks, if you have them, provide predictability, structure and a way out. And third, feedback is where you learn the most.

Now I’m not suggesting that you should turn your millennial talent loose to spend three months staring out a window. But you can groom your millennials to find success in freedom and the opportunity for feedback to eventually produce results and feel the same way I felt.

  • Expose them to the world. Encourage them to be curious.
  • Turn them loose to make things happen.
  • Give them feedback.
  • Reward Talent. Reward Results.

That’s what millennials (and all of us) really want.