When Millennials Take Over: Preparing For The Ridiculously Optimistic Future Of Business
Hello, I’m Maddie Grant and I’m super-happy to be here for the GroupHigh Virtual Summit for the third year in a row. This event’s always awesome and I’m grateful that you’re joining me here today. My presentation today is about some of the big ideas in my latest book, “When Millennials Take Over.”
Here’s what I’m going to cover in a quick 15 minutes. I’ll start with a little bit of context about how I came to write this book, then I’ll give you our definition of ‘millennials,’ so we’re all on the same page. I’ll share the four key capacities that companies need that emerged from our research, then I’ll dig into the first one, digital, by sharing some interesting stuff about our case study.
Just a little bit about my background to give you some context. I’m a digital strategist and have spent the last eight years helping associations and nonprofits with social media. Jamie Notter, my business partner and co-author, is a management consultant with expertise in conflict resolution, generational diversity and organizational development.
We’ve done a lot of speaking and writing together, and a few years ago, all of this started to coalesce around the idea that social media is changing not just marketing and communications, but also management and leadership. We wrote a book in 2011 called, “Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World,” which described that in detail. For example, how organizations needed to become more transparent, trustworthy, collaborative, de-centralized – things like that – in order to really take advantage of our social world.
Now, three years later, we’ve realized that the advent of the millennial generation into management positions is the catalyst that will really bring these ideas to reality. We did a lot of research into this and wrote this new book together to share what we mean. I will say this work has turned out to be so valuable and important that we launched a new consulting firm together called Culture That Works.
We’ve realized that organizations need to truly define the cultural values and principles that drive their success beyond just posting nice words on the wall. This kind of work leads to more engaged employees and more loyal customers. I’ll show you what I mean in just a sec.
First, let’s start with defining what we mean by the millennial generation. From a strictly numbers level, we use the years defined by the generational theorists, Strauss and Howe, so we’re looking at people born between 1982 and 2004. What this means here is that the oldest millennials are in their early 30s and have been in the workforce for a decade.
These are no longer kids these days and even if we still hear frustration from older generations that they wear flip-flops to work, are entitled and need constant validation, the millennial generation is poised to change everything about the way we work. They’re a game-changer for two important reasons. One, they’re the biggest generation in the history of the United States. There are more of them than the baby boomers, so they’re going to have an impact, just because of their sheer size and the fact that there’s not enough Gen-Xers to fill all the management positions left behind by retiring boomers.
The second reason relates to why they are who they are. Millennials have grown up being shaped by specific trends in our society that are all having a big impact on leadership and management. They grew up with the social internet. They come to the workplace with a sort of hacker spirit of ‘we can do this ourselves.’ Yet, that’s not often the norm for entry-level workers in our organizations. They grew up with unparalleled abundance in this country and if you don’t believe me, just ask the soft-storage industry. This is a $24-billion-per-year industry for storing things that we can’t fit into our living spaces.
That abundance means they come into the workplace with a raised bar for what they’ll have access to. They grew up with a much more visible diversity and not just on the gender or ethnicity front. They expect things from different contexts to be combined like a mash-up. They grew up being able to collaborate with their networks, with friends and friends of friends. They see the deep value of that ability to find expertise outside their immediate circles, yet in the workplace, they’re told that’s impossible, because it’s never been done that way. They grew up in a society that placed an elevated status on children. They operated more as peers with their parents, so they naturally blur hierarchy lines in the office, too.
Why do we care about this? This slide is just one example of the poll from one of the webinars we did about the book. These are all things that people mentioned in the poll. Trouble attracting younger staff or volunteers, generational conflict, struggling with engagement on both the customer side and the employee side, and not keeping up with the pace of change. The bottom one – 25 percent of the respondents said ‘all of the above.’
The good news is we have some solutions to offer around these problems, but let me take a minute to tell you how we got there. The research for our current book had two basic parts. First, we focused on the millennial generation. We did nearly 200 online interviews with millennials, asking them about their approach to leadership and management. Remember, the oldest millennials are turning 33 this year. They’re no longer entry-level. Then we combined the millennial research with case-study research in organizations with ridiculously strong cultures — the kind of places where people say, “I can’t imagine working anywhere else,” where engagement is through the roof and turnover very limited.
We intentionally chose these positive deviants because we weren’t trying to prove what the average is. We were trying to stay ahead of this curve to find out what the best companies were doing. When we looked at the overlap of these two streams of research, we identified four key capacities – digital, clear, fluid, and fast. Let’s talk about each one for a minute.
Digital is partly about understanding and using digital technology. You obviously need to stay ahead in that curve. I’m sure nobody here will dispute that, but more importantly, it’s about embracing a digital mindset. I’ll talk more about this one in particular, so we’ll come back to this.
The second key capacity that came out of our research is ‘clear.’ Clear is about transparency and making things visible in order to increase both the quantity and quality of good decisions that are made inside your organization. In today’s environment, it’s impossible to predict ahead of time who needs to know something. By making more visible, the right people have what they need to make good decisions. Millennials care about ‘clear,’ because as we know, they’ve grown up with information, meaning Google, at their fingertips. In other words, I don’t know actually means I don’t know yet. I haven’t searched yet, I haven’t contacted my friends and networks or tried anything to find the answer. They don’t understand why organizations are stingy with information – why decisions are made behind closed doors. They see much more value in sharing information as widely as possible, in order to be able to make better decisions and create the possibility for better informed action and choices.
‘Fluid’ is about making our hierarchies more flexible and dynamic, where people at every level do both the thinking and the acting. When you learn how to manage authority so it can shift and morph, you end up accomplishing a lot more. Millennials care about ‘fluid,’ because they grew up with blurred lines around authority and hierarchy. Their parents are at their level and very active parts of their lives. They’re spoken to as equals, even as adults, long before they’re actually adults. They don’t understand the benefit of not having direct communication with elders. Again, all the young people entering the workforce have an expressed frustration with hierarchy, but this generation distinctly want a team-based, shifting hierarchy based on who has the most experience in something, not age or tenure.
Finally, all paths lead to ‘fast.’ Everyone wants to be fast, which leads us to focus on productivity and efficiency. That’s a good start, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the kind of speed where you can make huge leaps ahead of your competition. To do that, you need to give up control and to do that, you need to figure out how trust factors into your organization’s success. Here, again, millennials understand the value of trust – the strong ties and weak ties that the internet can provide also builds trust, which of course, enables speed. They’ve grown up in an environment where new tools and technologies evolve quickly. There’s a new iPhone, iPad, every year. That means they naturally let go easily while the rest of us hold on to things the way we’ve always done it. They really just don’t understand why other generations are so resistant to change, why we keep using crappy, outdated systems even though everybody hates them.
Let’s go back to digital for a moment. This is, perhaps, the most obvious key capacity since we know that millennials are digital natives and are deeply embedded in the social internet. The digital mindset is not actually just about social media or embracing technology. The digital mindset is about designing things both internally and externally around the needs of the user or the employee. For example, software has to work on every browser as well as mobile. That’s harder on the software maker, but better in the long term, because more people can use the software. The digital mindset is, therefore, about customization, not just for the high end, but for the middle of our market – figuring out ways that more customers can find value or more employees can be engaged in specific ways that matter to them.
Finally, it’s about continuous innovation and improvement. We’re used to apps that update themselves on a weekly or monthly basis. Nothing stays static for long – everything has a version. Why do millennials care? This’ll be obvious, again, but they don’t understand why things are done in ways that ignore today’s digital reality. One of our interviewees said about his colleagues, “Why do they use email to send instant messages?” They’re not just generally skilled with digital tools, but more importantly, they understand how to match the tool to the right job. They also dump things that don’t work and find something else immediately.
Think about it. When you try out an iPhone app for the first time, how long do you give it if it doesn’t work as you need it to? I would say minutes before you go try something else, right? Because we’re used to continuous improvement and continuous learning with technology, they want that with their own personal development at work. They’re constantly trying new things and they want that at work, too.
Let’s see what the digital mindset at work looks like in the real world. We were actually kind of excited – the case study we found for digital was a small nonprofit organization. It’s the American Society for Surgery of the Hand. We wanted to not let people hide behind that excuse of, “Oh, we can’t be digital because we’re not Google or we’re not Zappos or we’re not Amazon.” If the American Society for Surgery of the Hand can be digital, then so can you. They certainly invest in the technology side of things. Six of their 22 staff people are devoted full-time to either IT or technology project management. More than that, ASSH embraces the digital mindsets, because they focus on both their customers and their employees in how they proactively design their organization.
The digital mindset mirrors the approach in the digital world, where software designers have to do lots of extra work to make sure their product works on 37 different platforms and 19 different devices. That’s hard work for the designer, but the customer expects things to be easy and customizable for them. At ASSH, they actually designed their workplace around the needs of their employees. They put the desks out together in the main space so people could have access to each other easily, including the CEO. He doesn’t have an office. He’s out there with everyone, because they got their job done better when they had access to him.
They then have lots of smaller spaces people can use for more private conversations. They have tread-desks. They have an innovation room, designed to spur creativity and they even have Wi-Fi on the roof, so people can work up there. They make it easier on the employee, even if it’s harder on the organization. The important thing is they get incredible engagement in the process, as this quote illustrates …
This is just one example of many we have in the book. The real lesson here that came out of the case studies and the research that we did is not only how to get ready for big changes that are coming, but also to understand how much company culture plays into your ability to better recruit, retain, and engage millennials who are, ultimately, your future workforce as well as your customers and your evangelists.
One final thought before I close – Of course, millennials will not actually be taking over. What this is really about is how all generations can work together. For every young Luke and Leah, our millennials, there needs to be a wise Obi-Wan Kenobi, who teaches them the way of the world and even a cynical Hans Solo, who claims to not really care about saving the world, and is just out for himself, but occasionally swoops in to save the day. By the way, I’ll claim Chewbacca is Gen-X. You guys can fight over R2D2 and CP30.
Anyway, there’s so much more in the book and we’d love you to read a sample chapter. I can’t wait to hear what you think and hopefully get a chance to talk more about this with you soon. Thank you.