What is it about “kids” these days? They come to us flush with degrees and limited work experience, looking for a fulfilling job. They are confident, eager and anxious to make a difference. Yet even before you can say “welcome aboard,” they are already asking for flextime and a promotion. They want to “friend” their boss on Facebook and prefer texting over emails. But what they are really looking for is a coach or a mentor—not a boss. So what is real, and what is a misconception and a stereotype?
It seems like they are looking for a shortcut to climb the corporate ladder, yet they want a dynamic and evolving culture, yearning to be on the team that could put a man on Mars. They are easily bored and will relentlessly seek the next challenge, whether it is in the same company or elsewhere.
I’m talking about the largest living generation in America: Gen-Y, dubbed the millennials, born between 1982 and the year 2000. However, if you look around, these people are not just kids anymore. Today, the median age of a millennial is 27, with a substantial percentage extending to early thirties. And they work on your team.
Here’s my point. Though your organization may still be selling solid products developed at least 20 years ago using 30-year-old traditional distribution and marketing channels, are we missing the mark? The up-and-coming workforce in our industry today has undergone tremendous change in the past few years. We have seen a lot of change with process innovation, new technologies, globalization, acquisitions and new emerging markets. However, the glaring elephant in the room, largely unrecognized, is the transformation of the workforce into an increasing millennial attitude and culture. Just as we have successfully adapted to a modern industry, as business leaders, we must adapt to a modern workforce.
Let me be clear. I’m not talking about reworking the “human” resources mold you’ve been using since the Reagan White House. I’m saying you quite possibly need to completely retool your approach and mindset. When it comes to millennials, ignore the stereotypes, and take a closer look at their motivations.
Are millennials truly a unique generation who think so differently from the rest of us? Yes and no. They are unique in that they are better educated, better connected and more socially conscious on a global scale. Raised in a culture of search engines, app updates, the cloud and streaming live data, they are accustomed to rapid innovation, instant gratification and unlimited access to information—any time and everywhere. Boredom in a world (or a work environment) without change and constant feedback is nonsensical to a true millennial. And yet, they came of age in the midst of economic recession and high unemployment rates. When they leave college, many are grateful to have a job so they can begin paying off their generation’s estimated $1.2 trillion dollars in student loan debt.
For all of their attributes and talents, millennials are somewhat misunderstood in the workplace. Their desire is to change the world. They have been given a consistent message on how great they are, how they can be anything they want to be and are encouraged to be dreamers and impact the world. However, this lofty attitude towards life can easily set them up for high expectations when they enter the workforce only to be disillusioned when the theoretical world of academia intersects with the practical world of employment. Having received limited criticism combined with a boosted confidence, it is easy to perceive them as impatient or arrogant. Their less formal and more familiar communication style may come off as disrespectful. They are accustomed to doing things on the go and multitasking, so they are greatly confused for the need to sit in a cubicle eight hours a day in order to be productive.
More than any generation before them, the millennials’ primary priority in a job is the culture. Once you understand that, you are well on your way to more effective inter-generational communication. And another major area of misunderstanding is that of loyalty. Millennials can and will be loyal to you but need to feel that you are loyal to them and committed to their continued development and personal growth. And for that, the leadership of the organization is where they look.
So what does it mean when a staff millennial waltzes into the president’s office just to chat? Is it a sense of entitlement, or are they looking for affirmation? Understanding the differences here is key to ensuring this generation is able to reach their full potential and, just as importantly, to do so within your organization and not with your competition. They are smart and are able to identify if the organization’s coaches and mentors, aka “bosses” actually walk the talk.
The entrepreneurial spirit of millennials cannot be underestimated, but they are also far less motivated by money than you might think. Millennials often want to have a positive impact on the world around them. They want their work to have purpose and meaning.
They are big on social justice in every aspect of their life, including work. They need to be challenged and know they are making a meaningful contribution.
Most of all, they want to work for an organization that shares their values. It’s not that their ideals and aspirations themselves are so different from other generations. The difference is that millennials have certain expectations and are willing to leave if those expectations are not met, even if that means taking a pay cut. And I am pretty sure many of you reading this article have experienced this first-hand already.
Millennials favor leading edge, innovative organizations and, like any young generation, they want to be associated with leaders who are shaping the future of their industry. They perform best in a collaborative environment, and yet they want recognition for their individual contributions. They need to know their work is valued and that they’re not just another cog in the wheel. They thrive on discovering the quickest and most efficient ways of doing things.
They are perplexed and frustrated when they’re told to do something simply because it’s always been done that way. They thrive in a culture with a certain level of autonomy and cringe when micro-managed. Companies that truly value their people by empowering their hires to take the lead, while bosses convert to more of a coaching/mentoring role, are far more likely to attract and retain millennials.
Millennials value a flexible work environment with greater access to leadership. This can be difficult for traditional organizations to accommodate. However, understand it’s quickly becoming the new normal. Millennials, more than earlier generations, strive for a healthier work/life balance. As a group, they’ve been characterized as lazy, but research shows they spend just as much time working and actually take less time off compared to their older counterparts. They tend to seek out leadership, but it’s not necessarily about getting a pat on the back. They expect leaders will share their knowledge, talk strategy and give feedback not only on their performance but also, their ideas.
Advice for Companies
My goal for this article was to share some key insights on the characteristics of a millennial employee, avoiding traditional misconceptions and embracing a new normal. To lead a new generation workforce, it is critical we understand and appreciate how millennials are wired, in order to maximize their productivity and contributions to our businesses. It’s not that our values are so divergent or that we need to change our corporate culture to suit a new generation. It means being effective in communicating ideals and adapting to changes in the workplace, so that our people, our most valuable asset, have every chance for success—which in turn will only positively impact our business.
In my organization, we know we are not perfect, but this is what we are attempting to do. Are we there yet? No. But, that is where we are definitely headed.
Ours is an industry rich in seasoned experts and ripe with young talent. We are and always have been multi-generational. However, if you are still perplexed by this new generation of millennials, perhaps the answer is to surround yourself with more millennials and they will give you straight talk and guide you. The question is, will you be willing to listen to them?