By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D.
This summer, I had the pleasure of meeting Representative Mathew Wollmann of South Dakota at SLLF’s Emerging Leaders Program at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. At 24 years of age, Rep. Wollmann was the youngest member of an impressive class and many of us took to calling him “Millennial Matt,” considering him the voice of a new generation of legislators. While the name was perhaps given in jest, it is often said that “many a truth is spoken in jest” and this was surely the case with our nickname.
Over the past months, I have gotten to “know” Representative Wollmann via social media (how appropriate) and have come to appreciate his vision and passion. He and his cohorts have never known a world without cellphones, social media, and instant access to news and information of all kinds. They are used to doing, learning and creating in their own way.
Reflecting these common and unique experiences, it is becoming increasingly clear that “Millennial Matt” and his cohort cannot and will not be led the same way as those who have come before them. If they wish to be successful, today’s leaders will need to understand and respond to their world. Find below some strategies that I believe will help.
Engage Don’t Demand. Millennial legislators came of age under an education system and a labor field defined by equality and interaction rather than hierarchy. They generally do not respond well to the kind of top-down leadership hierarchies that have traditionally dominated state legislators with a House Speaker or a Senate President sitting on and leading from the top of a leadership pyramid. Offer them input into the process and the decisions. They do not need to be equals with the leaders but they do want to be part of the leadership team and decision-making processes.
Appeal to Policy More than Party. While legislators in almost every state must declare a party affiliation to get elected and serve effectively in the legislature, understand that such an affiliation may not mean as much to this new generation of legislators as it does to you. It does not mean they will automatically vote yes or no on a bill simply because you tell them it is a party issue. On the whole, they are much more concerned with policy than party – they want to pass bills that make a difference and that fit their worldview.
Give them Skin in the Game. In the past, many leaders have built coalitions simply by making sure that members got something in the deal – a bridge, a grant, a plum committee assignment. However, many younger members find the traditional “logrolling” process somewhat distasteful. Instead, they want to make a difference and to be part of solving problems and meeting challenges. They want to be part of the process, not just beneficiaries of the outcome. Take full advantage of their skills and knowledge by putting these young members on committees, task forces and teams where they can make a difference in the lives of those they are elected to serve.
Assign Projects More than Positions. Traditionally, legislators have sought positions and titles, even if they brought little power. At one point a few years ago, the Texas House of Representative had more committees and subcommittees than it had members of the majority party so that every member of the party got at least one title they could brag about back home. However, it is clear that members of this generation of legislators are less impressed with titles than with impact. Instead of assigning them meaningless titles, assign them “projects”. Ask them to shepherd a particular piece of legislation through the legislative process. Assign them to a task force targeting a specific problem of interest to them.
Utilize Rather than Fear their Technology. These new legislators have spent their entire pre-adult and adult life attached to technology of one form or another. They are used to sharing much of their lives, personal and political, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. While such open sharing of information may be contrary to traditional leadership that uses information as power, it is common for these folks. While it is important to establish rules and norms for the sharing of sensitive political information (for example, bill negotiations), leaders must allow and even encourage their younger members to use technology to build their brand and to foster relationships that can help them succeed in terms of politics and policy.
Millennial Matt and his cohorts have an awful lot to offer – creativity, vision, passion and drive, just to name a few. It is up to today’s leaders to figure out how to make the most of it!