I’m sure, like me, you have heard and read a lot about Millennials and how different they are. How they will job hop, show no loyalty and have unrealistic views and opinions, particularly around their career progression and ability. It is certainly true that, compared to the Boomer generation, they think and act differently, and their values are different. A Boomer likes control through organisational hierarchy, whereas a Millennial craves inclusion and collaboration. Different yes, but is that bad? I would argue that if you can tap into their passion, their talent, and their knowledge, you have a powerful force that can drive your business forward. So how do you harness this tour de force? It’s fair to say that the old school, command-and-control management approach is outdated and ineffective with a workforce that has such different values. I had a recent situation that enlightened me as to the level of power that can be unlocked.
We had a dysfunctional process within the agency. I won’t go into all the details here, as it is both sensitive and not relevant to the topic. Suffice it to say we were not delivering to the standards that we expected. I felt we had looked everywhere for solutions. We discussed it at the Leadership Board. We had a series of meetings with the management team and identified issues, created action plans and reviewed progress. ‘Solving the problem’ was even written into our annual objectives. Yet nothing seemed to work until one day, a suggestion – actually, five suggestions all saying the same thing – appeared in our suggestions box. It was cry for help from the team who did the work. And it led to a series of ‘skip level’ meetings, and to the team itself taking ownership of the challenge and developing a resolution plan. So, what did I take from this experience? Three key points. I’m sure there were others, but these were the biggies for me.
1. Create an environment for voices to be heard
Managers must change from simply managing a resource, to developing that resource. As developers they must coach, monitor, listen, inspire and positively challenge their young talent. They must realise that they have a responsibility to get the best out of them. Not simply in terms of productivity, but also in terms of thoughts and ideas. With this approach you create a collaborative culture in which the Millennials can flourish.
2. Encourage them to own the situation
Old school thinking says that junior employees should pay their dues and show respect, just as their predecessors had to do. But Millennials expect autonomy, flexibility and an opportunity to express their opinions. Leaders must clearly communicate what is needed and then allow the young employees to take ownership of their work. If you allow them to take responsibility and own the situation, they will respond positively. An owner has a vested interest – they are committed – whereas a renter is transient and has little loyalty or investment.
3. Reverse mentoring
Here is a side story. A friend of mine recently bought a new car with in-car connected technology. Over a coffee she explained that she was struggling to link it to her phone. I offered to send my 10-year old daughter over to help … and yes, it turned out that my 10-year old set up her in-car tech! Bear with me and you will see the point. Millennials bring a specific set of game-changing technological skills to the workplace. Yet Boomers often have no idea what these tools are, what they do or how they’re changing the business landscape. How do the people who set strategy, who sign off investment and who are ultimately responsible for company direction tap into this knowledge? Instead of the usual older-to-younger employee mentoring, the junior employee mentors the senior employee. Reverse mentoring helps close the technological knowledge gap, empowers high-potential employees and drives understanding and empathy between generations. Imagine how good that 23-year-old on a graduate scheme feels when a senior manager asks for help. Not only do you get a more knowledgeable senior manager, you also get a highly motivated Millennial. If you want to know more about reverse mentoring, I can suggest a book by Kelly and Robby Riggs called Counter Mentor Leadership.
Companies who can effectively bridge the generation gap through leadership strategies that harness the potential of Millennials will create a competitive advantage. After all, the young employees are yearning for personal value in their work and the opportunity to contribute to something that matters. The alternative is that the manager—and the organisation—become irrelevant.
Chief Operations Officer