Do you really need to adapt your business to millennials?

You may be sceptical about how different Generation Y is, but this doesn't mean you can ignore them, says Jonathan Hime.

by Jonathan Hime
Last Updated: 13 May 2016

Everyone has heard the term ‘millennial’, referring to the generation reaching young adulthood around the year 2000. Many are fed up with the attention this new generation is getting. Why should these upstarts be any different and, even if they are, why let them call the shots? Yet the talent management industry keeps telling us that the next generation of leaders will be radically different from the current crop. Since millennials will comprise an estimated 75% of the global workforce by 2025, it merits a closer look.

Lumping everyone between the ages of 21 and 35 into one ‘millennial’ group may seem like gross generalisation, but generalisations can be useful. They underpin the marketing thrust of any company eager to identify common consumer characteristics when positioning new products and services. And in general terms, the point that the talent management industry is making is valid: when comparing millennials with their predecessors, we really are talking chalk and cheese. The human capital landscape is changing but competition for the best talent remains constant. Therefore, companies need to adapt their talent management strategies and cultures accordingly or they risk losing ground to those who heed the warning.

Without doubt, leadership teams will look very different in future as the millennial generation rises through the business ranks. These millennials are not super-human, they are made of flesh and bone like the rest of us. Nor are they fundamentally different in substance - they still have clear commercial goals and know the importance of delivering profitability and shareholder returns. But when it comes to mind-set, we are talking more revolution than evolution.  It is these stark stylistic and attitudinal differences that hiring companies need to recognise.

So what practical actions can employers take to prepare for this generational transmutation? Here are a six ways to engage future leaders:

1. Re-shape your company’s working environment to ensure you provide flexibility, an attractive work/life balance, a fun culture and perks that make you stand out from the crowd. Employee wellbeing is a common expectation among millennials and putting people first will ultimately increase commitment, productivity and innovation.
2. Ensure that career advancement and recognition are not just measured in financial terms. Career progression, personal mentoring, learning and leadership development go a long way in motivating millennials, whose ambitions to advance are not just driven by money and status. Make them feel utilised, valued and part of the company’s future.
3. Articulate a clear set of values, with employees and social responsibility at the forefront. Millennials tend not to be loyal to employers but will gravitate towards companies that share their personal values and have greater purpose beyond the commercial imperatives. They are as concerned with social impact as they are with bottom line impact.
4. Use technology to appeal and to reap value. Millennials are digital natives, so use the latest technology and collaboration platforms to build a collective community and foster team spirit, with communication and idea sharing at the heart.
5. Offer opportunities for mobility and new experiences. Millennials are naturally fast paced and open to change. They are nomadic, relishing exposure to different cultures and geographies. Giving them new and varied roles can help retain their interest on a number of levels without necessarily equating to a promotion.

6. Ensure access to the company’s top leadership. Replace hierarchies with flatter organisational structures that are inclusive and support equality. A strong connection with the board keeps millennials in tune with where the company is heading and shows that their ambitions and contributions are both understood and supported.

It goes without saying that not all millennials are identical. Generalisation is an accepted part of scientific theory and the essential basis of all valid deductive reasoning. There is always a danger that over-generalisation may lead to stereotyping, which can in turn transcend into parody. But there is enough evidence from research – not only by the talent management industry but by leading management consultancies including Deloitte and PwC – to prove that the millennial movement is real. If companies want to stay ahead of the curve, they must unravel the mind-set, understand what makes millennials tick and develop their talent management practices to attract and retain tomorrow’s leaders.

Jonathan Hime is Group Managing Partner at Marlin Hawk, a leadership advisory and executive search firm that delivers the next generation of business leaders.

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