How did I end up working with these kids?
Updated: Aug 31
It’s easy to see Millennials as a problem, but actually they’re the answer. Transform your outlook to focus on their strengths and you’ll realise that millennials come packaged with a broad skillset that is very well-adapted to the changing business climate.
You turned around one day and all of a sudden quite a few the people sitting around the table in your team meeting were young enough to be your children. It struck you that there’s a real mix of generations in your organisation and that their roles and seniority aren’t particularly dictated by their age, experience or time served.
“Quite right,” you thought to yourself, “we’re fairly up with it these days. Sure, we’re not Google but we’re not exactly dinosaurs either."
If only I knew what goes on in the heads of these youngsters though!”, you mused. “Truth be told, I’m finding it hard to properly understand where they’re coming from and how to get the best out of them. I mean they can certainly deliver when they have to but imagine what they could achieve if they put their phones down for five minutes!”
That feeling of not “getting” other generations is understandable. As each new cohort is growing up it is influenced by different social, economic and technological landscapes. These factors shape the values, outlook, motivations and behaviours that the people bring with them into the workplace. Our society has come a long way in quite a short space of time. Some of your colleagues entered the workplace using slide rules. Your latest hire hosts project update sessions using Facetime. There have been countless and highly dramatic, social, economic and technological changes over the last few decades. It’s shouldn’t come as such a surprise that the people in your organisation (yes, the leadership too) all think and feel differently about issues that are crucial to its strategic objectives.
At the risk of an over-simplification, a useful distinction can be drawn by thinking about the contrasting characteristics of pre-millennials (baby boomers) and millennials.
Baby boomers possess a strong work ethic; they put the hours in and value the amount of input perhaps over the outcomes. Their self-worth is often derived from career achievements and they tend to find achieving a good work-life balance difficult. Goal-oriented with a good attention span, they’re great at focussing on a specific subject or task. They often thrive in an environment driven by goal setting and achievement or where goals are set for them. They are very resourceful. This was a necessary trait for many during their childhood. They learned to make do with what was available, which can translate to making do with a given or fixed set of circumstances as well as limited resources. They are often happy being left to their own devices to work the problem. This older generation is disciplined, again a trait straight from their childhood, which means they like structure and following a set path. For much of their careers so far, a job for life was still a thing and they display high loyalty to their employers. They expect time served to be rewarded and their traditional career path is envisaged (just like generation after generation before them) within the same organisation.
Millennials have high expectations of their employers and are seen by many organisations as being hard to please. They want fast advancement, financial reward, involvement in decision making and to be given responsibility. They expect a more one-to-one, coaching-style relationship with their managers with constant feedback and a running dialogue. Books written about them by psychologists often use titles such as “Generation Me”. You’ll have heard the phrase digital native no doubt. Millennials have grown up immersed in electronic and digital technology used for entertainment and personal communication. That technology has brought about a revolution in both the nature and quantity of personal communication, which has drastically reshaped this generation’s behaviours and habits. They are also the most formally educated generation yet, which accounts for a big increase in numbers of graduates entering the workforce. More socially liberal, they are more likely to support political correctness and be more motivated by socio-political and environmental issues. They are very entrepreneurial, they expect to be “treated right”, seeking fulfilment and validation through recognition of the quality of their contribution over the quantity. Much of this translates to being less loyal to one employer. But then that job for life, which baby boomers were safe to expect, is a thing no longer. Many see the gig economy as the future of work and it suits millennials very well.
It’s easy to see negatives in this generation and to lay the blame for your organisation’s woes at their door. They are a new breed and that means it takes a new breed of leader to recognise and harness their strengths. They come with a broad skillset out of the box that is well-adapted to the changing business climate.
It’s time to plug them in! Let them drive the adoption of new technology. Give them opportunities to work collaboratively. Help them create virtual team structures and let the people with the most relevant skills and experience (and desire) contribute rather than just the ones in the most convenient physical location or that happen to have some capacity.
To a millennial totally used to collaborating through communications technology in all aspects of their life this is simple logic. To others this can be a tough new logistical challenge.
Millennials’ desire for involvement and the way they seek fulfilment means that they care about your organisation’s mission and values and want to make a difference. Include them in
planning and strategy; connect them to the context, drivers and goals of projects and work streams. They want to know why they are doing what you have asked them to do and they need those motivations to be connected to their own. Build their engagement and you build their commitment. Add in a good feedback loop with lots of interaction with their managers (and the strategic leadership) and you’ll have a millennial workforce driven to achieve your organisation’s goals. The holy grail for any leader!