Motivating Millennials: Learning the Hard Way
How listening to, understanding and supporting the younger workforce can open doors and stimulate growth.
If you’re a leader 35 years or older, and you manage younger people, you’ve most likely participated in the popular professional parlor game “bash the millennial.” As a leader who used to play a few rounds of this game myself I can tell you that it’s really easy. First, you pick up points for rehashing negative platitudes about a whole generation so large it eclipses any other. Second, you joust to share horror stories of managing millennials (“He resigned by text!”, “Her mother called me to complain about her bonus!”). Third, you confidently state that your generation was different, better, less entitled.
But bashing millennials is as pointless as it is popular. Consider some perspective: like it or not, the workforce we have to lead is increasingly made up of millennials. Many are already in successful leadership positions, some are already our clients. From a personal standpoint, trying to fight the very nature of inter-generational differences – as old as humanity itself – seems futile. From the business stand-point, it makes even less sense.
I learned this firsthand when I founded my own communications agency relying on a pool of millennial talent who were serving in their first or second positions since graduating. Like most startups, we worked long hours, celebrated the highs and pushed through the lows. I owe many of our early victories to the experience that I gained during the first fifteen years of my career. Yet as Clyde Group’s team grew, I began to be increasingly challenged.
My team wasn’t content with the top-down style of management I inherited from the Baby Boomers I once worked for. I had been inculcated by my bosses to put my head down, serve my time – at any time (day or night), and not to ask too many questions. It wasn’t an abusive culture by any means, just a demanding one. And, also, a heavily outdated model by the time I came to be the boss.
One year into the company’s existence, Clyde Group millennials rebelled, with nearly half leaving in the space of a few months. For me, it was a wakeup call – a realization that my view of work place culture was professionally outdated, and personally unproductive. It was making my employees unhappy, threatening their productivity and our growth. And looking back, that leadership style was also making me personally unhappy, too.
So, I tried something new. Listening to the millennials rather than talking about, or talking down to, them. Asking everyone to complete an anonymous survey about all the aspects of our work culture and their expectations, I called a town hall to review every single answer. It took three hours – a cathartic, humbling and sometimes humiliating revocation of my bombastic, demanding leadership style. And while not everything changed overnight, a lot changed fast, from expectations of working hours, to cultural norms, to account management.
The lessons from this – and multiple subsequent townhalls – helped provide me with a roadmap of cultural, professional and personal considerations that have proven invaluable in managing the firm, and growing a happy (or at least happier) workplace. The lessons I learned focused on a few key areas—each of which I could make an article unto itself:
1. Think less office hours, more employee hours. It’s not just about working remotely, it’s about working smartly. And even though the media cycle never stops – PR professionals do – forget about late night or weekend work. This is PR, not ER.
2. Feedback has to be constant. Millennials don’t just want to be heard, they want to be understood and see the value of their leadership.
3. It’s not about office perks. But it actually kinda is. When it comes to the things the company does for employees, collaboration matters. Give the perks your employees tell you they want, not what you think they want.
4. Stop saying millennials aren’t different. They are, in every conceivable way. Work to channel that.
These are less “principles” and more observations. Clyde Group’s culture is very much a work in progress – but the fact that it is progress being led by, made by and on behalf of our team of millennials is not only creating a living focus group of new work principles, but ultimately allowing us to better serve our clients now, and understand the clients of tomorrow.