New generation, new challenge

In April 2014 I facilitated a Talent Forum, a small group of human resource professionals in the northeast of England. This is something we do quarterly to share the talent management challenges we each face and explore one in depth using an Action Learning Set method.

On this occasion the challenge, posed by a company that runs a global customer contact operation, was how to engage "millennials" (that group of people defined by the Pew Research Centre as those who are 18 to 33 years old, born 1980-1996). The local head of business and the head of human resources explained that it was essential to employ young people to meet the growth expectations of the business but retaining these youngest employees, or millennials, was increasingly difficult. Attrition is costly and an impediment to operations so the topic is a priority.

These young people live in a different world to the one we "baby boomers" grew up in and to some extent still inhabit. Millennials were born in a digital age, permanently connected by their smartphones to friends, social life, interests and information. Their interests are what they are and are unlikely to be set aside for work unless their work is their interest.

Many young people have different life and work expectations. Property is less accessible to them and often less important. They could well be less motivated by the big house and car that incentivised their parents. They are inclined to travel more and live life as an adventure rather than settle down with a family. Many have interests away from work that are much more important to them than work itself. It's easy to see how difficult retention is and I believe that the answer to improving the situation resides in the often overlooked condition for a purposeful organisation - success.

Engaging the millennial generation

Here are my personal tips for engaging millennials which, to be honest, will apply to engagement of any workforce. What works for millennials could well be a breath of fresh air for others at work who would relish a more modern experience. Of course, I realise that the tips that follow must absolutely be reconciled with the needs of the job. Much of what follows is drawn from best practice I have personally witnessed in successful workplaces over many years.

Discard the need to judge others by our own standards

We may have a so called "work ethic" that places work more important than other things. But not everyone does. Some people have relatives to care for, interests to pursue, involvement with community or charity organisations. They may have all manner of appointments to keep and will be massively demotivated if they're not allowed to do so.

Implement as much flexible working as operations allow

With mobile data, many people can work anywhere any time. I recently coached a manager who had lost his wife and often needed to collect his children from school. However, once they were in bed, he would get back to work from home. He didn't make a big thing of it, so many colleagues thought the worst.

Encourage trust and openness

Leading on from the previous two tips, leaders have a role to play in encouraging these two values. Simply accepting that people are different - and helping everyone to understand that - creates a more tolerant and productive workplace.

Train leaders to facilitate diversity

Progressive leadership doesn't happen by accident. Leaders need time to explore the rationale for tolerance, openness and encouragement.

Bring personal success out into the open and celebrate it

Another leadership role is to find our what success means to each of their people and to share this within the context of teams and wider. As a consequence, action can be taken to celebrate personal success in an appropriate way.

Accept differences in performance and reward appropriately

Clearly in a more tolerant and diverse workforce there will be differences in performance. The person who flexes to suit the business and works long hours when needed may well be adding more value than someone on a short week who leaves at three o'clock sharp to pick up their children. The challenge is to respect everyone and reward them fairly, whatever this means.

Work out how to align people to the purpose of the organisation

This book contains hundreds of gems on how to do this, from having a compelling purpose, a vision to die for, engagement strategies and so on. If we can make work vitally important to people that is ideal. But for some this will never happen - so read on.

Respect those for whom work is an enabler for other things

This really is the elephant in the room topic. For some people, work is the most meaningful thing in their lives. For others it is an enabler for other things that they see far more important. As long as they are contributing well and feeling good about what they do, that could well be fine. The leaders role is to manage the differences.

Satisfy people's wants and needs

Apart from the business purpose and money there are many reasons people enjoy coming to work. The manager's job is to find out and facilitate as many conditions for their satisfaction as they reasonably can. Here are just a few needs that might be catered for:

  • Financial security
  • Experience
  • Learning
  • Social contact
  • Friendship
  • Being part of a team - work, community or sports
  • Pleasant or inspiring surroundings
  • Good food
  • Fun
  • Personal coaching
  • Exercise
  • Respect

There are many more - don't take my word for it - brainstorm a hundred reasons to come to work with your colleagues and friends.

Consider a values assessment

In situations where a specific group of people need to be engaged, it is worth taking stock of the values they hold dear and those they perceive as prevailing in the organisation. This data enables the corporate designer to systematically manage the culture in a way that is more attractive to those we are seeking to motivate and retain.

Whatever their age, think about the whole person

In thinking about these methods of engaging millennials, the underlying message seems to be this: there needs to be an interest in the whole person. But if we expand our thinking to the wider workforce for a moment, it is obvious that this applies equally to everyone in an organisation, no matter how old they are.

Having someone to talk to who is able to coach or mentor around work, career and life in general is of immense value to many people. Thinking about the whole person also leads us to consider that people have other priorities in their lives. But, in order to do a good job, to be of value, there must be sufficient alignment with the purpose and values of the organisation to maintain an acceptable focus on service.

If organisations can do that, then they will have inspired and motivated their people, be they millennials or from another generation, to really care about their shared purpose, bringing the best of who they are in order to play their unique part in the delivery of this purpose.

Clive Wilson is an experienced senior leadership coach, speaker and facilitator at Primeast. To start a conversation about your leadership development or development challenges and opportunities for your organisation you can email him directly here.

About the Author

Clive Wilson

Clive is an enthusiastic writer, keynote speaker, facilitator and Primeast coach, whose main focus is the purposeful alignment and leadership of individuals, teams, organisations and communities.

Experienced in working with leaders and groups of absolutely any size across the world, Clive is committed to organisational sustainability in service of a better world.

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