How do you Manage a Millennial?


Two weeks ago I read a blog written by former TAB member Suzanne Burnett.

Suzanne was one of the members of TAB York, so I’ve known her a long time now, and her blog is invariably interesting and thought-provoking.

In her most recent post she’d been to the Aviva offices in York – and she’d been struck by their commitment to ‘corporate wellness.’

As Suzanne said, plenty of companies and organisations pay lip service to ‘wellness’ but Aviva had embraced it wholeheartedly, from a dedicated ‘hygge room’ to mindfulness and meditation sessions for the staff, corporate wellness champions and plentiful supplies of fresh fruit.

The question – as Suzanne rightly pointed out – is how do smaller businesses compete with that? We all want to employ the best people – but what chance do we have if they’re tempted away by Aviva’s bean bags and bananas, or the recent ‘work when you feel like working’ introduced by accountants PwC?

What’s the answer? Let me quote directly from Suzanne’s blog:

You can spend as much as you like on corporate wellness but, ultimatelyit is the culture within your company that counts. If someone feels under-appreciated, under pressure or feels that their career isn’t developing as it should – then 20 minutes in a sleep pod isn’t going to fix that.

That’s why having a clear vision for the company is so important. That’s why regular review meetings with your team really matter. That’s why agreeing targets, not imposing them, is crucial.

Those are key elements of a corporate wellness programme and they are key elements that don’t cost anything at all.

So problem solved. Or is it? Because I think the initiatives of companies like Aviva and PwC, and the absolutely spot-on response from someone who’s built a very successful business, poses an additional question for all of us.

How do you manage a millennial? Or, more to the point, a team of millennials?

Because who are those bean bags and platters of fresh fruit for? And who is going to make up 75% of the global workforce by the middle of the next decade?

The millennial generation: those people who came of age around the turn of the century.

As we all know by now, millennials want different things to their parents’ 9-to-5, don’t-change-jobs-too-often generation. They want flexibility, they want to feel that they are making a difference, they want to work for a company that ‘shares their values.’

But is that possible? Especially for a small business? How long can the owner of an SME go on supplying the latest ‘wellness’ initiative and giving yet more time off for mindfulness and meditation (to say nothing of the nativity play) before he asks a simple question. What is more important: the bean bag or the bottom line?

The ‘Millennial Question’

If you have 20 minutes, watch this excellent video featuring management thinker Simon Sinek, in which he discusses what he terms “the millennial question.”

Teenage Girl using a phone

If you haven’t, let me summarise the argument for you.

Millennials are tough to manage. They’re said to be lazy, unfocused, self-centred and only care about themselves. Yes, they want the company they work for to ‘make a difference’ but they have no idea what ‘make a difference’ actually means. They want free food and bean bags – but even when all that is provided they’re still not happy.

Sinek blames a combination of factors – including the parenting and education of a generation brought up to believe that they were ‘unique’ and ‘special’ and deserved a medal for simply taking part.

Well, if there is one thing the corporate world teaches you – quickly and sometimes harshly – is that you are not unique and there are absolutely no prizes for simply taking part or turning up.

Unsurprisingly, there is something of a backlash against millennials in some quarters. Managers don’t want to be surrogate parents, they’re fed up with an ‘anti-work’ attitude and they don’t see their employees’ happiness as their responsibility.

Which would be fine, were it not for the demographics.

Millennials are going to make up 75% of the workforce: there is nothing we can do to alter that fact. No-one reading this blog runs Google or Apple. But we are competing with them for talent and – if you’re in it for the long term – you’ll be competing with them for talented millennials in eight or ten years from now. So anyone looking to build a successful business in that time will have to recruit, manage and motivate his millennial workforce.

How are you going to do this?

First and foremost I’d endorse the points Suzanne made. I’ve said it many times before but you need a clear, concise vision for your company and you need to communicate that vision effectively. And you need to show how you are making a difference – plenty of companies will address this by choosing a charity to work with in 2019. That’s one simple step you can take: the owner of the business does not need to choose the charity.

Let me make three more suggestions:

Millennials – as Sinek suggests – want approval. Right now that appears to come from social media, but it is going to be crucial at work as well. Team meetings and collective decision making will become increasingly important in building your business.

Training is important, both for the millennials and their managers. Millennials expect to ‘make a difference’ within months: they may not see the long term strategy. Managers will need to learn to deliver feedback in different ways: millennials will need to learn some long-term thinking.

And hand in hand with this goes the inevitable business focus on short term results. This is going to be incredibly difficult for managers and owners. You’ve built your business on KPIs and short term results: on identifying problems quickly and fixing them equally quickly. Ten years from now a significant proportion of your workforce will see ‘percentage of office power from renewables’ as your most important KPI.

So just go into your office, lock the door, put your password in and have a look at that ridiculously old-fashioned – but strangely, still important – cash flow forecast…

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