Be the company millennial women love

How do we crack the code of attracting, advancing, and retaining next generation women leaders?

With millennials projected to account for 75% of the workforce by 2025 and women accounting for upwards of 50% of this total, one of your company’s greatest talent challenges is likely: ‘how do we crack the code of attracting, advancing, and retaining next generation women leaders?’ 


We interviewed company executives and rising female stars at A.P. Moller Maersk, BlackRock, eBay, Fidelity, HubSpot, Pearson, Philips, and RBC for this study. We supplemented these interviews with a survey of organisational leaders and millennials at additional companies. Based on these insights, we’ve created an actionable framework that highlights what young, high flying women value.

Survey Results: Three Surprises – what you need to know about the 30 year old women at your company

We were surprised by three findings that emerged from our survey of organisational leaders and men and women age 22-36.

Surprise #1: Women around age 30 rank pay, lack of learning and development, and a shortage of meaningful work as the primary reasons why they leave organisations. This breaks the assumption that women around age 30 mainly leave companies due to work-life integration or flexibility reasons.

When considering the main reasons why women around age 30 leave organisations, you likely expect the primary influences to be motherhood or difficulty integrating work and life. For example, in our survey, when we asked organisational leaders about the most difficult transitions women 5-10 years out of university face, these executives ranked transition to motherhood first. In contrast, millennial women ranked transition from university to first job and changing roles for the first time as more difficult, with the transition to motherhood third. What’s more, when we asked organisational leaders ‘Why do women 5-10 years out of university leave organisations?’ they ranked the need for flexibility and starting a family first and second, respectively. Surprisingly, millennial women identified a higher paying job, a lack of learning and development, and a shortage of interesting and meaningful work as the primary reasons why they may head for the exits.

Figure 1. Why do women 5-10 years out of university leave organisations?

According to organisational leaders:

1. My work and personal life are out of balance. I would like a role with more flexibility.

2. We are starting a family. I would like to spend more time with them.

3. There are not enough opportunities for learning and development for me here.


According to millennial women:

1. I have found a job that pays more elsewhere.

2. There are not enough opportunities for learning and development for me here.

3. The work here is not as interesting and meaningful as I would like.


 Figure 2. Why do women 5-10 years out of university leave organisations?


Surprise #2: Men and women around the age of 30 mainly leave organisations for similar reasons. This defies the myth that men around age 30 primarily leave companies due to pay and women around age 30 leave companies due to family reasons.

In our survey, organisational leaders said that men and women 5-10 years out of university leave organisations for different reasons. Organisational leaders thought that the primary reasons why men leave are to take a higher paying job or because there is not a fair balance between their work effort and pay. In contrast, they said women mainly leave because their work and personal life are out of balance or because they are starting a family. In the comments section of our survey asking why men around age 30 leave, a typical response was: “money, not being able to advance quickly enough.” In contrast, a typical response explaining why women around age 30 leave was: “usually by now she’s at manager level and it’s time to decide to spend more time with family or commit to work and keep climbing the corporate ladder.” Millennial men are perceived as compensation driven, while millennial women are viewed as focused on balance and family.



 Figure 3. According to organisational leaders



However, our survey reveals that the primary reasons why men and women around the age of 30 leave companies are closely aligned. According to millennials, four out of the five top reasons why young women and men in this age group depart organisations overlap:

  • “I have found a job that pays more elsewhere.”

  • “There are not enough opportunities for learning and development for me here.”

  • “There is not a fair balance between how hard I work and the compensation I receive.”

  • “The work here is not as interesting and meaningful as I would like.”

Surprise #3: Women in their 20s and 30s value similar things at work. This breaks the myth that millennials will become increasingly like the rest of us as they ‘grow up’ and ‘mature.’

There is a popular perception that millennials’ desires will change over time. We often hear that millennials will ‘get over the hump’ of being this way and their desires will change as they ‘grow up’ and get a mortgage and have children. Interestingly, our survey revealed that women in their 20s and 30s value similar things at work. For example, when we asked women in their 20s and those in their 30s about how important it was that their organisation develops their skills, inspires them with purpose, understands that they are whole people with interests outside of work, connects them to great colleagues, and unleashes them to lead, their answers did not vary significantly among the two age groups.

Figure 4. How important is it to you that your organisation 


Key managerial actions

  • “Address Challenges Beyond Motherhood: Motherhood is not the primary reason women around 30 are leaving organisations. Focus on what matters most: Pay women fairly, challenge them with learning and development opportunities, and provide them with meaningful work.

  • “Focus on Early Career Transition Points: Women need extra support through key transitions in their career. The two most difficult transitions – the transition from university to first job and from first job to a new role – take place early on. Start early and pursue targeted interventions at critical career and life junctions.

  • “Understand that Millennials’ Values Are Here to Stay: Women in their 20s and 30s value organisations that develop their skills, inspire them with purpose, understand they are whole people, connect them to a community, and unleash them to lead. By focusing on these values, you will appeal to emerging women leaders now and into the future.

  • “Why Millennial Women Join, Engage in, and Stay with Organisations

In our survey, millennial women were clear about what’s important to them at work:

Figure 5. How important is it to you that your organisation


Explanation of chart: 

Our conversations with next generation women leaders reveal five main themes of what they desire at work:

“Know me”: Invest the time to understand me as a person, including my passions, interests, desires, and needs both in and out of work.

“Challenge me”: I need to grow and continue my learning through new challenges and see multiple paths to advancement.

“Connect me”: I want to interact, collaborate, and build relationships with a dynamic network of peers, leaders, mentors, coaches, and sponsors.

“Inspire me”: I want purpose from my workplace from which I derive a sense of meaning.

“Unleash me”: I want to lead initiatives, have my voice heard, experiment, and use my entrepreneurial flair.


Figure 6. A Millennial Women Advancement Model


Mind the Gap

But, some gaps did exist. Emerging women leaders thought their organisations could be more effective at these five dimensions. How will your organisation bridge the gap?

Figure 7. How important is it to you that your organisation … and How effective is your organisation at


Explanation of chart: survey of women age 22-36; % ranking each statement as important, very important, and extremely important and % ranking effective, very effective, and extremely effective.

Taking Action

In our interviews, we heard emerging women leaders talk excitedly about times when their organisations knew them as people, challenged them with interesting work, connected them to a dynamic community, inspired them with purpose, and unleashed them to lead.

In the stories that follow, we identify five key themes that emerging women leaders cited as important to what they wanted and needed from their work environments – things that serve to attract, motivate, and retain them in their organisations. Through company practices and the voices of millennial women and organiational leaders, we’ll highlight how companies are embracing the values that emerging leaders desire: “know me,” “challenge me,” “connect me,” “inspire me,” and “unleash me.”  

"Know me"

Invest the time to understand me as a person, including my passions, interests, desires, and needs both in and out of work.

The young women we interviewed wanted their organisations to invest the time to understand them as people. In our survey, 94% of millennial women stated that it was important, very important, or extremely important for their organisations to understand that they are whole people with interests outside of work.

Extend flexibility to as many people in the company as possible. Consider HubSpot, an inbound marketing firm headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. HubSpot has created a culture where star millennial women – and talent across genders and generations – thrive. HubSpot was founded by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah in 2006 in a one room office a block from the MIT campus. Their vision was to make the world inbound – to help businesses draw more visitors to their websites, more leads for their sales teams, and more customers to fuel growth. By the end of 2014, HubSpot had over US$115 million in annual revenue, more than 13,000 customers in 93 countries, and was trading under the ticker symbol HUBS on the New York Stock Exchange. At HubSpot, flexibility is available to employees throughout the company. “At HubSpot the idea is to optimize work around your life, not the other way around. For example, we have lots of rowers and tri-athletes at HubSpot so they pursue their athletic passions in the morning and then start work” says Katie Burke, Director Media & Analyst Relations, HubSpot.

Focus on ‘results’ and ‘role models’ in your flexibility strategy. HubSpot’s mantra is “results matter more than the hours we work” and “results matter more than where we produce them.” This philosophy is deeply embedded into the company’s culture. As HubSpot’s Maggie Georgieva explains, “the key question is, ‘are you making progress on the things that matter?’” The company’s flexibility policy boils down to three words: “use good judgment.” In practice, this means that employees work it out with their teams to work the hours and in the location where they can best produce their work. And, keep in mind that flexibility does not necessarily equate to shorter hours. “At HubSpot, the hours are long but flexible,” says HubSpot’s Meghan Keaney Anderson.

It also helps when senior executives role model flexible working. One HubSpot executive is not a morning person so he blocks his calendar each day until 10:00 a.m. What’s more, HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan works from home one day a week.

Give people a chance to recharge. Furthermore, the company has taken steps to give employees a chance to recharge. For example, employees who have been at HubSpot for five years qualify for a sabbatical. When a HubSpotter “turns five,” they get full pay to take a four week sabbatical. In addition, they receive a separate sabbatical check for US$5,000. There are no restrictions on the sabbatical. The idea is to do whatever would enable you to recharge for four weeks – work on your novel, take a family vacation, or pursue whatever passion you may have.

"Challenge me"

I need to grow and continue my learning through new challenges and see multiple paths to advancement.

Junior female stars relish opportunities to grow and continue their learning through new challenges and see multiple paths to advancement. “What millennials are looking for is ‘How are you focusing on my development? Am I learning and growing every day?’” says Ted Higgins, Vice President, Fidelity, one of the largest mutual fund and financial services group in the world.

Help emerging women leaders develop the skills they need most. Talent leaders explain that many rising female stars benefit from targeted skill building. Thus, a number of the companies we spoke with are providing specific development for next generation women leaders. This is one instance when differentiated development might make a big difference in a woman’s career advancement, due to the fact that men have had more opportunities to develop certain skills, for whatever reasons there might be. Here are four examples of such targeted development:

1) Stakeholder Management: “Philips’ Next Gen Women in Leadership Program spends quite a bit of time helping women understand their power arena, which is their stakeholder map. The program covers: who are your stakeholders? Where are they within your power arena? And, what is the relationship you have with them?” says Belinda Liu, Head of Leadership, Talent, and Learning – Growth Markets, Philips.

2) Negotiation Skills: “We kept hearing from managers ‘I’ve got great women on my team but they are not asking. They hesitate to ask for what they need to progress their careers at BlackRock,’” explains Kara Helander, Managing Director, BlackRock. As a result of academic research and conversations with managers showing that women express anxiety and lack of confidence when asking about career progression, BlackRock’s Art of the Ask program was born.

3) Access to Informal Networks: Compared with men, women have a more difficult time gaining access to informal networks and being known by key decision makers. BlackRock is taking steps to address this challenge with the firm’s MD (Managing Director) Chats program, which connects women directors with managing directors at the firm through two 90-minute small group sessions. “MD Chats create a forum where people can connect where they otherwise would not. It puts more of that high potential female talent on the radar of senior leaders in the firm so they are not just a name on a list anymore. They are a person they have a connection with,” says Helander.

4) Building Your Personal Brand: “In the Philips Next Gen Women in Leadership Program, we focus on building your personal brand. What is it that you want to stand for? What drives you to show up to work every day? How do you articulate your achievements and strengths?” says Philips’ Belinda Liu.

"Connect me"

I want to interact, collaborate, and build relationships with a dynamic network of peers, leaders, mentors, coaches, and sponsors.

“One of the things that I like about HubSpot is that working here is more than just trying to finish my to-do list every day. It’s more than just a job. HubSpot is built as a community and an experience for the people who work here,” explains HubSpot’s Meghan Keaney Anderson. The young women we interviewed want a place to be from, a community that inspires them, and dynamic peers that push them to be their best. This community is deeply important to young women as it provides support during times of transition, a sounding board for navigating organisational politics, and a sense of camaraderie that adds richness and meaning to work.

Use technology to connect senior leaders with junior female talent. Some companies are using technology to connect senior female leaders with junior women. For example, Fidelity has a national women’s networking group and participants are able to dial in, watch speakers on Fidelity TV, and ask questions live. HubSpot uses the app 15Five, which allows people to highlight achievements and challenges to their managers. The app is available to any company worldwide. How it works is team members take 15 minutes each week to answer a few questions, such as ‘What challenges are you facing?’, or ‘Where are you stuck?’ Then, managers take about 5 minutes to review and respond to employees’ comments. Sharing achievements, challenges, and ideas each week gives employees a voice and increases productivity by keeping team members updated.  “What I like about 15Five is that you don’t have to constantly meet with your manager but they are in the loop of what you are doing so they can bring it up when talking with others. The other good thing is that you can see your peers’ wins and challenges. Sometimes we see a trend and can talk about it,” says Maggie Georgieva.

Encourage senior leaders to be ‘architects of teams.’ HubSpot’s sense of peer camaraderie and healthy competition is built by senior leaders. “HubSpot’s senior leaders see themselves as architects of teams,” explains Georgieva. Executives at HubSpot stay connected to employees because rather than having permanent desks, they sit at “nomad tables” throughout the HubSpot office. The nomad tables are intentionally positioned in the centre of big rooms where there’s a constant flow of people. What’s more, the company’s employees also go through a semi-random seat shuffle every three months to enable employees to meet new people.

"Inspire me"

I want purpose from my workplace from which I derive a sense of meaning.

Millennials have been referred to as “the purpose generation.”[1] The young people we interviewed want to work for organisations with a deep sense of purpose. Millennials told us that they join and stay with organisations if they derive a deep sense of meaning from their work. As HubSpot’s Culture Code proclaims, “Paychecks matter, but purpose matters more.” In our survey, working for a company that “inspires me with purpose” mattered slightly more to young women than to millennial men. Connie Geiger, Senior Director Talent Acquisition, eBay explains, “A millennial woman will not necessarily leave because she’s offered a $10,000 increase. It’s more the opportunity to work on the next meaningful, cutting edge, cool thing. They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. That is one of the reasons we have such retention of young female talent at eBay. These future female leaders understand the impact that eBay marketplaces have on people’s lives.”

Align development initiatives to your company’s mission. Pearson, headquartered in London with more than 40,000 employees across the globe, is the world’s leading learning company. Pearson’s mission - to improve lives through learning - is a significant draw for junior female talent. Pearson tackles big education challenges such as raising literacy levels and making education more affordable around the world. This speaks to millennials who want to be connected to a mission and want a role to play in that effort. Talk to almost any young woman at Pearson and ask why she joined the company and she’ll answer without skipping a beat, “it’s the mission that brought me here.”

Pearson’s mission is woven into the fabric of the company. For example, Kendra Thomas, Director Diversity & Inclusion Americas, challenges the leaders of Pearson’s women’s group, Women in Learning and Leadership (WILL) to consider: “How are you impacting learning? How are your initiatives related to Pearson’s mission?”

Pearson’s millennial women have risen to the challenge. For example, the Colorado WILL chapter ran a Wikipedia edit-a-thon during which the participants learned how to edit Wikipedia pages, a new skill for all. Afterwards, they spent a day building Wikipedia pages for women in education or STEM fields who were previously under represented on Wikipedia. The initiative was a success: The group built eight pages in a day. The endeavour was free. The participants learned a new skill. And, Pearson employees put something into the world that’s impacting learning. Thomas explains that these young female leaders are highly energized by connecting and contributing to Pearson’s mission. “The millennials in WILL are excited about Pearson’s future. They’ve bought into the mission of the organisation. They think big. They think globally in a way that other generations have not. When I talk about how WILL is related to improving the lives of global learners, they take that very seriously.”

Expose junior female talent to senior role models. One surefire way to inspire junior female talent is to expose them to exceptional senior women leaders. Executives highlight the value of senior women leaders sharing their career challenges and advice through leader-led learning. According to Belinda Liu, who is based in Philips’ Singapore office, “In Philips’ Next Gen Women in Leadership program, we look for role model female leaders within our organisation to deliver the program modules. For example, if we are planning to run the program in the Middle East or in Asean, we encourage our different markets to bring in local female leaders to talk about their own experiences as leaders. We look at this as ‘leader-led learning’ and a great opportunity for these leaders to share the challenges they have faced along the way.”

Ambitious, young female talent find these leader-led sessions highly inspirational. For example, Clara Mohl Schack participated in A.P. Moller Maersk’s Strategies for Success program. She explains her favourite part of this two day program aimed at developing the professional and personal skills of high potential women, “For me the strongest part of the Strategies for Success program was the exposure to senior female leaders in a panel discussion talking about their challenges. Spending just a few hours with them was amazing.”

"Unleash me"

I want to lead initiatives, have my voice heard, experiment, and use my entrepreneurial flair.

The next generation women leaders we interviewed are deeply engaged by leading initiatives, taking ownership over projects, and using their entrepreneurial flair. “Keep in mind that the millennial generation is a generation of entrepreneurs,” said one executive.

Challenge millennials to direct their creativity into innovative products and services. Some companies are challenging millennials to direct their entrepreneurial creativity into creating innovative products and services. For example, consider eBay. In 2012, John Donahoe, eBay’s CEO, was at the company’s annual board meeting presenting on mobile trends and innovation. A board member asked Donahoe, “What is your strategy for bringing on university talent? How are you going to attract the young innovative people who’ve never known a time without cell phones?” After the meeting, Donahoe looked at the numbers. They were dismal. He discovered that eBay was hiring less than 2% of its total workforce from university. Donahoe declared the lofty ambition of increasing eBay’s university hires from 2% to 25% by the end of 2013.

eBay’s leaders knew that for young talent to succeed at the company, they needed to understand how to think and act entrepreneurially. As a result, during eBay’s orientation for recent college graduates, the university hires are now placed in cross-functional teams and are tasked with developing innovations in these teams. The core question they must address is: “What products or services can eBay offer that appeal to millennials?”

At the end of the two week orientation, the new hires present their ideas to eBay’s executives. From 2012 to 2014, eBay has run ten of these orientation sessions. The new hires have learned a lot in the process. But, in an unexpected twist, eBay has gained even more. eBay’s Sarah Brubacher explains: “After the first round of presentations, the ideas were so good that we started bringing in patent lawyers to attend the sessions. We are pursuing many of the terrific ideas at eBay.” What’s more, eBay’s talent pipeline has improved in several ways in recent years. Consider this: from 2012 to 2014, eBay doubled the number of women in Director-level or above positions. The Head of Strategy for eBay marketplace is a woman. In addition, eBay achieved its target of hiring 25% of its workforce from university.

The Path Forward

The themes “know me,” “challenge me,” “connect me,” “inspire me,” and “unleash me” were common threads throughout our conversations with emerging women leaders. We hope that you can use the insights from the executives and bright, young women in this report to support and enhance your existing organisational strategies. For example, the following is an audit you might use to address the extent to which your organisation is focusing on the things that matter most to your company’s next generation women leaders:

Audit: Five Questions about Your Company’s Capability to Advance Millennial Women

Millennial women have told us that the themes “know me,” “challenge me,” “connect me,” “inspire me,” and “unleash me,” are important to them. How does your company measure up? Rate your company’s strength on a scale of one to five in the following areas. Then, write down actions your organisation will take to address any weaknesses.


Rating (1=we’re not effective, 5=we’re highly effective)

1. “KNOW ME:” How effective is your organisation at providing millennial women with the flexibility they need?

1            2            3           4           5

How effective is your company at providing rising female stars with stimulating experiences and stretch assignments?

1            2            3           4           5

3. “CONNECT ME:” How effective is your organisation at connecting emerging women leaders to an interesting community of peers?

1            2            3            4           5

4. “INSPIRE ME:” How effective is your company at creating opportunities for junior women to learn from senior-level female executives?

1            2            3            4           5

5. “UNLEASH ME:” How effective is your company at giving high flying junior female talent the responsibility to lead initiatives?

1            2            3            4           5

We have great confidence in this next generation of women leaders. The rising female stars we spoke with are passionate, optimistic, ambitious, and purpose-oriented. What’s more, organisational leaders are excited about the energy that this generation brings to their organisations. By focusing on the things that matter most to your junior female talent, they in turn will fuel your company with fresh thinking, innovative ideas, and big impact.

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