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Leading millennials: A million-year dilemma returns

This article was originally published in the August 2019 issue of EUROBiz: click here to read it there.

Research on millennials makes fascinating reading. Never before have we dedicated so much time and effort to understanding the talents, needs and tastes of next-generation workers. Firms arrange surveys, focus groups and task forces, then initiate disruptive changes according to the outcomes. Flexible work hours are introduced, mission statements reworded, ping-pong tables installed and apps downloaded. Then, companies wait for the inevitable leap in productivity, innovation and profitability. Gabor Holch from Campanile Management Consulting explains why the expected results may not always arrive that easily.

Understanding millennials looks easy at first. Research on their wants and needs is plentiful and consistent: give them a strong sense of purpose; an environment where teamwork and learning supersede competition; flexible schedules; and lots of supporting technology. For Generation X and baby boomer workers, this sounds like everything they missed out on in their early careers. And thus, senior management eagerly rearrange entire firms for the same reason someone starts a toy car collection at age forty: because now they can afford the fun stuff. And indeed, some of the toys magically bring the generations together: many firms already have great experience with millennial-friendly digital platforms, flexible schedules and mindful communication. But others fail to deliver.

One reason why millennial-proofing is so hard is that both sides are out of their comfort zones: pleasing young people is not traditional corporate vogue. But with recent head-spinning changes in business and society, senior managers have mounting reasons to listen to their younger staff. Digital natives gracefully flicker through technology that creates a level of global exposure that earlier generations could not have dreamed about. Moreover, millennials have enviable optimism: according to a recent study by O. C. Tanner, they see more opportunity, support and appreciation than Gen X and baby boomer colleagues in the same organisation. Add the communication and self-branding skills they learn from progressive education and social media, and you will understand why many confused seniors seek advice from millennials, rather than the other way around.

But Gen X and baby boomer managers should think twice before reversing their baseball caps. Research shows that while it is often productive to reform workplaces according to Millennial advice, it can also result in wasteful experimentation. The reason is simple: what people want is not always what they need, and awareness of the difference increases with age. Notice the contradictions between typical Millennial demands to employers: they want collaboration and disruption; they want leaders to be mentors and revolutionaries, winners and humanitarians.

But while modernity has turned life upside down in many ways, often for the better, there are also ancient wisdoms we should retain. Such as how generations work together. Youthful hormones inspire humans to wild ideas and stubborn follow-through, because early communities needed courageous action to get resources. They also encouraged their youth to take roles befitting their temperament: fighting, exploring, coordinating and organising. But life was short back then, and experience rare, so ageing hormones switch us from doing the risky business to preparing others for it instead. This diversity of nature and nurture served us well for a million years until we started to question it in modern workplaces. But companies are communities where tribal rules of diversity apply. Successful firms encourage creative conflict between courage (sales) and caution (finance), old (leadership) and young (newcomers).

Humans instinctively desire such a balance of roles. To harness Millennial talent, senior managers must stop putting them in charge and ensure complementary roles between generations. Junior employees scout the horizon the way young hunters and gatherers used to, and often come up with meaningful requests. That is why calls for digitalisation, diversity-based communication and trends like gamification make sense. But millennials also admire Elon Musk and Jack Ma because they dictate great visions. Providing purpose, strategy and orientation are senior jobs because they require experience. Therefore, corporate leaders should provide the vision and resources, and give millennials constant feedback about progress.

Engaging young workers is not a favour to them. It helps companies survive, because Millennial and younger workers will soon outnumber their seniors, according to Accenture. For a successful symbiosis, generations must learn of each other’s different value sets and overcome a few bad habits. The first one is pigeon-holing millennials: many young workers defy and resent generational stereotypes. As elders did for millennia, senior managers must notice when a young worker is a non-Millennial by temperament, upbringing or preference, and nurture their talents accordingly. Secondly, companies must create shared spaces that serve several generations. Arranging cross-generational meetings and project management methods, creative forums and digital communication takes longer, but supports the emergence of constructive new habits of collaboration.

Finally, seniors must attune their expectations over time. As millennials age, they start resembling previous generations in their attitudes to risk, stability and responsibility. But even as millennials fall in line, companies should remember the lessons learned, for a simple reason: if we can believe researchers, an incoming Generation Z will put management to the same test all over again.


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