Rather than focusing on differences that are irrelevant to the company’s mission, focus on the energy and fresh talent that every new generation brings. Channel this toward ways to keep the organization competitive and vibrant while also doing a better job of retaining new talent with meaningful work. Here are 4 strategies for leaders to get the best from their younger workers.
by Jeremy Ghez, Randall P. White
July 7, 2020
The millennial and Generation Z experiences have primed “kids” to be valued contributors in jobs with greater relevance.
As the first millennials advance toward 40, how can companies best deliver on the expectation to provide meaningful work for these generations and offer them a pathway to leadership positions?
Celebrate the Noobs
It’s easy to default to stereotypes, but for leadership development, the single difference that matters most is: being new.
It’s the newness of millennials and Gen Z that brings life experiences different from their more senior colleagues, but it is the same newness of each preceding wave of talent. Boomers eschewed corporate rigidity and conventional ideals and sought affirmation and meaning in their jobs, too. And so do Gen Xers, millennials and Gen Zs.
What has fundamentally changed is the knowledge and understanding of the workplace, which has markedly evolved as society continues a glacial advance toward diversity, inclusivity, empathy and the importance of emotional intelligence. Companies have become learning organizations that are far less bound by rote procedures and command-and-control leadership.
This may seem a more challenging environment for older generations. But unless they rely on a wider range of talents that are more representative of today’s society, they are unlikely to generate the novel ideas they need to thrive.
Balancing Realities With Ideals
First, a quick reality check. Today’s managers run into this attitude frequently: the way I want it to be versus the way it actually is. Younger generations have historically said, “I don’t want it to be this way.”
Each generation has fought battles to be included and to have their way and gain experience. Each successive wave of people to enter the workplace will want to deconstruct things and do things differently, interestingly a process that is the same as prior waves. Senior management must embrace this — it is the source of energy, innovation and learning.
Organizations can waste a lot of time arguing over what is and what should be, so it’s necessary to define the “tournament” with certain structures and protocols in ways that align with the company’s mission.
This way, as less experienced workers play the tournament (what is), they will eventually change the tournament (what it should be) over time, simply by participating in the tournament with different tools and different experiences and outlooks. It’s a healthy process that doesn’t have to break the system.
Experiential Advantages of Youth
The old way of thinking said we have big change followed by a plateau of consolidation. To ask where we are going. To consider what’s the latest thinking. Thus, older executives grew up when there would be a period of time to assess and reflect on what they learned from periods of rapid change — recall the old S-curve.
Now everyone is adapting and learning on the fly. The current work environment — including the 2020 pandemic — leaves no time to do consolidation, because there’s always another change curve.
Millennials and their younger colleagues grew up in this environment. Don’t bore them with talk about VUCA. They’ve lived in a VUCA world where change is constant and fast. This is a hackneyed concept that won’t impress them.
“I think young people are much more comfortable with uncertainty,” said learning and development consultant Sherena Mistri-Yiannouka. “What’s different is the times we’re living in — a lot more technology, a lot of distractions and the pace is a lot quicker — so for them, that’s normal.”
There’s a flip side that comes from growing up in an educational system that often emphasized participation over excellence.
“They don’t have that same resilience. They get very disappointed when a boss reprimands them or when the boss might not praise them,” Mistri-Yiannouka said.
Still, the 9/11 generation brings much from its life experience:
- Acceptance of ambiguity and uncertainty that makes them more immune to fear of the unknown.
- Technical expertise as digital natives. Having grown up with digital devices, they are naturally more comfortable navigating online modes of work.
- Aptitude for trial and error and less fear of failure if it serves the mission — and far less regard for expertise: “If I can find it online, I too can do it.”
So in addition to bringing the fresh perspectives and energy that all younger generations have brought, these life skills can be channeled by talent managers to shepherd their organizations toward competitive advantages.
How can businesses best attract and benefit from incoming generations? Consider the following four strategies.
1. Have a Simple Mission Without Sacred Cows
One way to bridge generations and retain new hires is to leverage what the younger generations bring. This can be achieved by establishing rules in the form of a very simply stated mission for structure and by getting rid of sacred cows so there is plenty of latitude for new ideas and reinvention on the fly.
First, the mission …
Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly pits his brick-and-mortar brand against online retailers with one well-chosen verb: showcase. As in, we can showcase products in a way that no tech giant can match.
As Jill Griffin wrote in her Forbes article, “Best Buy’s Turnaround: You Can’t Make This Stuff Up!” “Best Buy struck deals with Samsung, Apple and Microsoft. Rather than crowding these brands next to each other on shelves, Best Buy invited these tech icons to set up their own ‘branded’ kiosks. (Apple, for example, has the same understated, sleek wooden tables you see in an Apple store.)”
Second, forego the sacred cows.
Facebook, notably, encourages its new hires to try to invent the very thing that will kill Facebook: “If we don’t create the thing that kills Facebook, somebody else will.”
No critique should be taboo, because it could save the company.
In a recent MBA class exercise at HEC Paris, 10 teams were asked to present “pre-mortems” for the online retailer Amazon. Seven of the teams came back with the same stunning prediction of the company’s demise: Nobody would want to work for them.
The consensus among the 18-21-year-olds was that Amazon had made itself socially irresponsible for its environmental impact and worker compensation.
“I am not surprised by those answers,” said Margaret Schweer, COO of Tammy Erickson Associates. “Our willingness to be connected to a specific employer is impacted by a number of factors, including: Does this company fit with our personality? Are we included in the processes and decision-making that directly affect our work? Are we valued for the unique contributions we make to work that matters? And are we connected to the people we work with? It’s about organizational culture and career starters [who] are asking, ‘do I want to choose that?’”
Sticking to core mission statements without pointless doctrines, restrictions and conventions on how to execute creates an environment more likely to retain people who are seeking to be part of something larger than themselves.
Senior managers, take note.
“When I first started in my career at Citibank, it didn’t even occur to me to question the corporate social responsibility of the organization, whereas I think young people today are more interested and definitely do want to see their organizations contributing to that,” Mistri-Yiannouka said
2. Reconsider How Your Organization Defines “Experience”
Experience will always count as a job qualification, but it can be elitist when focused too much on “the best schools” and amazing internships. Broadening the scope of what experiences count suggests looking for diverse paths in how applicants arrive at your organization.
People growing up in a globalized economy who may have emigrated for their career paths, or may be the children of immigrants, often have valuable life experiences that are unique from more senior workers. Additionally, the single mother who financed her own education may bring significant insights to the job.
In some cases the jobs themselves are evolving. Columnist Thomas Friedman once compared the start of his career with that of his daughter: His was a clear path into journalism. Hers involved inventing a job.
Companies can approach job descriptions with a lot more openness and the flexibility to redefine job descriptions to invite more diverse experience.
“As more organizations flatten their structure, pushing personal accountability downward, the typical upward career structure doesn’t work,” Schweer said. “In those organizations, there is more white space for people to move into creating horizontal or stair-step opportunities”
Again, no sacred cows.
Also, don’t hesitate to find inspiration streaming online. In the Netflix political thriller “Designated Survivor,” the character Dontae Evans provides an example. As a young, gay, very socially conscious African American, he is deeply conflicted about the politicians for whom he works. Perceived as naïve and overly idealistic, Dontae’s skills as a digital native demonstrate his worth to his supervisor and allow him to keep his apolitical beliefs, as he artlessly advances ahead of his Harvard-educated superior.
3. Make Diversity a Competitive Advantage
Difference gives businesses the opportunity to seriously entertain different ideas — ideas that may present a competitive advantage.
Companies need to generate as many ideas as possible. The moment that one idea gets dumped, you’re dead unless you have many ideas in the pipeline. You can’t do that with an organization composed entirely of old white guys.
Exposure to uniquely experienced (age, family, nationality, ethnicity) colleagues, working shoulder to shoulder even if electronically, breeds an opportunity to learn and understand more about difference. And if organizations learn and understand more about difference, they build a new culture.
This won’t necessarily decrease today’s chaos, but it may harness it in productive, helpful ways.
It’s not enough to say, “we promote diversity.” There needs to be inclusion of all generations to get the best results. Diversity isn’t just to be nice, it’s to be better.
4. Be a Conduit for Innovation
Look for ways to quickly engage younger workers alongside more experienced staff as soon as possible in a workplace that invites fresh contributions.
Prior to 2020, competition for talent was fierce and young applicants could be very selective in where they went to work. Companies enticed new hires with the relevance and coolness of their products and the opportunities of being part of an innovative team.
The Google founders’ “20 percent project” encouraged employees at all levels to spend that portion of time on ideas that were good for Google. This reportedly resulted in innovations like Gmail and Google News.
Reverse mentoring is one way to tap into the “newness” of younger workers and impart wisdom from more senior talent. Jennifer Jordan and Michael Sorell offer a helpful primer in their Harvard Business Review article, “Why Reverse Mentoring Works and How to Do It Right,” describing reverse mentoring to facilitate digital skills sharing, diversity and cultural change.
Companies can modify their DNA to create opportunities in which they try things out — failure may occur, but it’s an opportunity to learn, and if you can learn faster than your competitors you just might win in the marketplace.
It’s Not About Generational Differences
Stop reading so much into generational differences. The next class of graduates will have the same struggle for recognition and promotion as those that came before.
Rather than focusing on differences that are irrelevant to the company’s mission, focus on the energy and fresh talent that every new generation brings. Channel this toward ways to keep the organization competitive and vibrant while also doing a better job of retaining new talent with meaningful work.
By establishing and respecting a clear corporate mission, organizations can provide a workplace that invites the greater creativity and initiative that comes from a continually refreshed and more diverse workforce.