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Mentoring millennials for nursing leadership

Bittner, Aubrey MSN, RN

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doi: 10.1097/
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MORE MILLENNIALS are entering the healthcare workforce every day and will continue to do so for the next decade. Born between 1981 and 1996, millennials make up about half of healthcare workers and are reportedly twice as likely to become RNs than their baby boomer counterparts.1-3 Alongside these young nurses are a subset of nurses who are foregoing retirement and working longer, widening the generation gap in the workplace. According to the 2017 National Nursing Workforce Study, 50.9% of RNs are above age 50 and 14.6% are 65 or older.4

Four distinct generational groups are practicing in the nursing workforce today, and each one brings a unique style to the nursing profession. Those work styles and the strengths and weaknesses within each group should be recognized and understood. Although the differences between the multiple generational groups can present challenges, this diversity conveniently mirrors the diverse patient population we serve. These characteristics form the individual lens through which each nurse interacts, connects, and provides care to patients and families. As a millennial nurse manager, I feel it is important to have an accurate understanding of the generational characteristics and preferences of all my staff so I can foster a healthy work environment and effectively mentor my staff for future leadership roles. This article describes challenges and opportunities across the multigenerational nursing workforce, along with suggestions on how to remove barriers and align with millennial nurses to provide meaningful mentorship and promote understanding and a positive work environment.

Focus on nurse millennials

Millennial nurses have become a focus in nursing literature, nursing education tools, and employee satisfaction methodologies. In the last 10 years, both nurse leaders and healthcare entities have started to investigate ideal strategies for recruiting, leading, educating, and retaining this particular subset of nurses.5

Many organizations struggle to retain millennial nurses, but the reasons may be unclear. A greater focus on a work-life balance may be among the leading factors in higher turnover rates among millennials.6 Young nurses with this mindset are looking to newly emerging nonhospital facilities that have more favorable hours, such as urgent care centers, pop-up medical offices, and clinics.7 Further, older nurses may consider millennials to be disloyal to their employer, self-entitled, opinionated, unable to cope with criticism, and lacking in diligence.

It is important not to assume that each individual nurse demonstrates the stereotypical characteristics of his or her generational group. While understanding the most common generational characteristics is essential, a nurse leader must get to know each member of the nursing staff and learn what they individually value. This will help avoid biases and misunderstandings and enhance working relationships among all generations. Millennials are the future of nursing and we can learn from each other how best to parlay their skill set into leadership roles.

The future of nursing

According to Buerhaus and colleagues, 1 million RNs will retire between 2017 and 2023.8 As a result, millennials are the face of the future of nursing, both as frontline staff and nursing leadership. At the very least, nurse leaders must develop an awareness of and promote professional development and leadership opportunities for the millennial workforce.9 Various qualitative studies, research initiatives, data collection, and analyses are available to develop the finest “how-to” in training and retaining a millennial workforce.10 Newly arising in literature are works titled “Organizational Strategies for Engaging and Retaining Millennial Employees,” “Mentoring Millennials,” and “Understanding the Millennial Generation,” to name a few.

Nuances of the millennial generation impact these individuals' leadership abilities and styles. The millennial workforce must be prepared and mentored to become effective nurse leaders of a uniquely diverse workforce embodied by multiple generations. With the blend of generations that now comprises the nursing profession, the spectrum of styles, communication preferences, and expectations from management have become more diverse. This being said, it is important to examine the stereotypes and general tendencies within the millennial cohort in order to strategically turn these qualities into valuable leadership skills. These idiosyncrasies, such as a social work component and aptitude for technology, may be characteristics of this generation, but they do not necessarily equate to inefficacy. A successful millennial leader will empower nurses across all generations to further develop the profession and ensure delivery of excellent patient care. However, generalizations and stereotypes often associated with millennials lead to apprehension about the ability of millennials to be leaders.11 Overcoming this mindset requires focused succession plans to mentor millennial nurses as proficient leaders and retention strategies to minimize turnover.

Parlaying skills into leadership

The capacity for a millennial nurse to successfully embrace a leadership role is unique and specific to each individual, rather than to the generation in which the individual belongs. A new leader who is perceived as “younger” or “less experienced” than some of the workforce will always face challenges, but some potential stumbling blocks can be turned into advantages. For example, research shows that millennials generally favor working in groups and having a common goal toward a solution.11 This can positively impact a leader's ability to implement change among a large group of staff members. Furthermore, the literature shows that frontline staff desire a leader who not only promotes teamwork but participates in it.12 Staff look for a confident role model in a leader, one who encourages personal growth while striving for his or her own continued development.13

Many other qualities commonly attributed to millennials can be assets for nurse leaders. Effective leaders are often described as those who strongly advocate for their patients and staff alike. Millennials are vocal in their desire to achieve goals and have successes, and generally are not intimidated by their lack of experience.11 Clinical nurses say their most appreciated leaders guided them in ways to improve upon their practice.14 The challenge for millennial nurse leaders is to identify the strengths within their workforce and within each individual. Millennial nurse leaders can use their persistence, confidence, and open-mindedness to create such an environment.

Further, working with technology is second nature to millennials. This is an incredible strength for a leader, considering healthcare's increasingly technologic direction.15 The rapidly changing work environment is ideal for millennial leaders, and one in which they will thrive.15

A recent study expanded upon leadership qualities that stood out to newly hired nurses. Interviewees stated that their most valued leaders were willing to share experiences, applaud their staff's achievements, and encourage others in a positive and open forum.13 It can be argued that this mirrors some expectations of millennials themselves, with the assumption that many new hires will indeed be of the same generation. Leaders whose expectations align with those of their staff have a deeper understanding of the wants and needs of the staff they supervise and can help ensure staff satisfaction.

Mentorship and development

It may be in an organization's best interest to approach potential millennial leaders in a different light. The use of internal networking may help identify nurses who may be interested in becoming nurse leaders. If such a system is utilized in a more proactive approach, it could help counter the convenience of online job searching and recruiting that attribute to much turnover in the millennial population.

A mentorship program will help retain and develop millennial nurse leaders. A formal mentorship with a senior leader will create a structured pathway for the millennial to receive steady and frequent feedback.16 Because millennials prefer to work collaboratively and feed off of diversity, a new millennial leader may also appreciate being developed in group settings where learning is interactive and diversified.11

Organizations and senior leadership may benefit from instituting a “leadership cohort,” in which new leaders (millennials or not) can discuss ideas, action plans, or struggles, with the guidance and experience of a knowledgeable upper leadership team. This can be done informally to promote relationship building, communication, and development among the leadership team.

Millennial nurse leaders who understand each generation's needs, whether dissimilar or not to their own, will foster an environment in which everyone learns from each other.17 Although trends develop within generations, it is not safe to assume that each person will fit these generalizations, and the same expectation applies to millennial nurse leaders. An individual's leadership qualities, especially if properly coached and mentored, can provide a platform for a successful dynamic leader.

Senior leaders of a millennial manager may face a unique hurdle in trying to adapt both their teaching and mentoring style to a millennial mentee, all while ensuring their millennial successor understands the multigenerational workforce that currently exists. By interacting and exchanging ideas with a cohort of leaders with varying generational backgrounds, a millennial leader may identify generational differences among the cohort in a safe space. In this proposed cohort, there can be more open and honest conversation among the multiple generational types to better develop a knowledge base for effective communication with all. Additionally, leadership classes and enrichment sessions that address and educate leaders of our multigenerational workforce may be valuable.

Final reflections

Understanding generational differences is an important reality in the world of nursing. It is just as pressing, if not more so, as any other cultural difference that leaders must keep in mind. A knowledge and understanding of these differences will directly impact retention, buy-in from staff, staff satisfaction, and other vital nursing indicators.

In my new role, my desire to be respected by staff, some of whom have a lifetime of knowledge and experience, is humbling. It encourages self-reflection and a willingness to listen more than I speak. The opportunity to be a leader of such a diverse workforce promotes legitimate “facetime,” fostering emotional intelligence, sincerity, and a heightened awareness of the needs of others. My leadership role has encouraged personal growth and has driven me away from some of the instinctive tendencies associated with my generation.

Accomplished leaders who continue to take the time to share their experiences and knowledge in order to mentor me and further my professional development have been most instrumental in my progression thus far. This has proven to be invaluable for my continued self-growth, and I hope to someday do the same in mentoring future generations of nurse leaders.


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    generation gap; leadership development; mentoring; mentorship program; millennials

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