How can your business adapt to millennials

Leading Millennials/Generation Y

Recently a video by author and speaker Simon Sinek went viral on social media achieving over 56 million views on Facebook alone. The hot topic was about millennials (people born after 1984) in the workplace. It seems that this new generation thinks and operates very differently to those generations before; in Sinek’s words “they confound leadership”. This is a profoundly important discussion because by 2025, millennials will make up 75% of the global workforce and the current operating models in organisations simply don’t work for the mindset of this generation.

Let me give you an analogy: if we see organisations like an engine, an engine needs fuel. The traditional fuel that powered these ‘engines’ was either incentive and reward or punishment and fear. The features of this engine design were bonus schemes, promotions, KPI based management, disciplinary processes and even fear/aggression. What we’re seeing is that the millennial workforce is running on a different kind of fuel so the ‘engine’ of the organisation must now change in response. The workforce we have today is fuelled by wanting to do meaningful work, wanting to feel trusted and wanting to feel respected. Therefore, unless the organisation can adapt itself to be powered by this different fuel we will increasingly see the core engines of our organisation’s failing, through cultural collapse.

But it’s perhaps not the dire picture some media outlets would have you believe. This group of people have characteristics we desperately need in our workplaces right now. They include:

  • High levels of education and skill, we have never had more highly educated and skilled people entering the workforce.
  • Flexible thinking, this generation are not comfortable just following the rules, they have agile flexible thinking as standard.
  • Passionate and energetic, this group of people want to care about their work. They are far less content with just doing ‘a job’ for money than any generation that came before.

These are all qualities organisations have traditionally invested heavily to develop through training courses or initiatives and yet they come as standard with our new workforce. However, as ever in life there is a price to be paid and we must learn to be flexible to accommodate the needs of millennials. So what can leaders do to better engage this group of people?

Care about the person more than the function – for years organisations have equated people to a ‘resource’ as evidenced by the term Human Resources or the fact that many HR functions fall under the responsibility of the Finance Director because ‘people are a cost’. Simply put millennials will not tolerate being treated as machinery, they call out “I am an individual! Know me, understand me, value me!” Managers must learn to individualise and adapt their style for each person. The organisation, in turn, needs to show it cares about its employees as much, or more than, it’s KPIs.

Give clearly defined outcomes but not step by step instructions – this generation does not want to be mindless automatons, they want to learn and discover their own ways of working. Allow them the freedom to find their own ways to deliver the results you need.

Always connect to greater purpose – there is nothing more disheartening for a millennial than to feel what they are doing is pointless. They are mentally wired to connect to a sense of purpose, what contribution am I making to the world? Why does what I do matter? You must provide multiples ways for them to really feel the impact of their work and celebrate their contribution.

I’m largely dismayed by the recent negative narrative about millennials in the workplace. Our ways of structuring organisations (traditional hierarchies) and operating (reward and punishment) have largely remained unchanged since the industrial revolution. I believe many of us who have worked in a large corporate hierarchy of command and control would fight to keep this model. The new generation are challenging us to find better ways of working and I firmly believe these ways will be better FOR ALL OF US.



Simon Sinek on “The Millennial Question”


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Published in Business Leader Magazine:

How can your business adapt to millennials – see the column by Chris Atkinson

Business Leader Magazine

Chris Atkinson In Business Leader Magazine

How to transform yourself into an amazing leader with Chris Atkinson:

Chris Atkinson Business Leader Magazine
Leadership expert Chris Atkinson gives his tips on how to transform yourself into an amazing leader.

My experience of working in leadership development for more than 15 years is that our instincts are misleading; your leadership behaviours are most likely NOT happening to the extent that you believe they are.

The simplicity of concepts like these below is their greatest risk because they tempt you into thinking “yes, I’m sure I do that!”

You must make a conscious and systematic effort to sustain the behaviours over time so that they ultimately become part of your corporate or team culture.

1. Be crystal clear on what constitutes leadership activities (don’t confuse with management)

Typically, leadership covers anything involving people but NOT focused on processes, KPI’s, measures or planning… You might be wondering what that leaves!!

2. Schedule leadership time daily as you would any appointment

Leadership behaviours have a tendency never to happen unless they are planned in or made a part of your regular habits. Once a commitment is made you can quickly evaluate how important leadership is to someone by how willing they are to move or reprioritise the activity.

Make sure you demonstrate the importance of leadership to you by prioritising it as highly as you would any urgent business need.

3. Show humility, become a lifelong learner

Nothing frustrates more than a leader who thinks they know it all. Make a visible/public statement about your willingness to learn and grow.

When you are consistently humble you create space for others to explore, if you are the obvious expert then others will always defer to your judgement and stop thinking themselves.

4. Show vulnerability

Trust is proportional to openness and, in recent years, the idea of vulnerability has become a big topic in leadership.

Risk revealing things you might not normally speak about in front of your people, this promotes high levels of trust. For many leaders showing vulnerability feels unusual and risky but the rewards are huge.

5. Ask for feedback regularly

Never assume what people want from you and never wait to be told. You have two choices in life, 1) to find out what people think about you and, 2) to not find out what people think.

If you choose the second option people are still thinking the same thoughts about you but you have no control and no chance to change. Have courage, actively ask “what can I do to better support you?” and “what do I do that gets in your way?”

6. Be direct and fearless in your conversations

We often find ourselves dancing around unsaid issues where you know what someone is thinking and, probably, they also know what you are thinking! But no one says these things out aloud. Try ‘calling out’ what you believe is happening, speak about it in a direct manner. Remember to remain calm and hold an open dialogue.

7. Get to know the person behind the function

Too many people understand their colleagues only in terms of their functional role in the organisation. Make an effort to understand the real person behind the role not just the job they are performing!

Once you understand someone at the level of their character, interests, priorities, home-life, attitude and beliefs you will be able to tailor your style much more effectively to get the best from them.

8. Adapt and shape the role to the individual’s strengths/weaknesses

It very tempting to unify similar job roles so that each person has exactly the same job description and duties however one size fits all will never deliver great results. It takes skill and good relationships within a team to achieve but to get the very best a leader must uniquely craft each role for the individual in that role.

9. Delegate results not tasks

Delegation is hugely misunderstood as being about giving away work. Most people delegate to free up their time. Actually delegation is a process specifically to develop and grow talent in your teams.

Therefore, don’t delegate a list of tasks, instead delegate a desired outcome and then get out of the way! In allowing the person to find their own style and approach you are developing their skills and fostering talent.

10. Become a better coach

Coaching has become the preferred communication style for leadership. Coaching itself seems quite straightforward on the surface but skilled coaching takes practice and expertise. If you want a future career in leadership you must learn to become a strong coach.

You can see the full January issue here