How best to manage Millennials

Gen Y is poised to transform the future of work, management and leadership. Enabling them to thrive and deliver value takes serious thought


For generations gone by, the only way to get on in work was to pay your dues. Promotion, reward, the steady ascent up the corporate ladder were all earned and paid for by commitment to the job, loyalty to the company and – perhaps more than anything else – by putting in the time. It took time – several years usually – to really learn the ropes and to demonstrate readiness for more responsibility.

Then Generation Y (aka Millennials) arrived in the workplace and turned much of this on its head. HR leaders and managers of Gen Y were shocked by a new wave of workers who are prone to leave their jobs with frightening rapidity. This is a generation that stays around for two to five years before moving onto the next opportunity; a cohort that cleaves more to purpose than to material reward, that demands to know why as much as what they are required to contribute or accomplish, and whose primary allegiance is not to the organisation but to the immediate team and the individuals who surround them.

Generation Y are, of course, the leaders of tomorrow. And they are starting to accede to positions of influence today. They are also causing friction with incumbent leaders who don’t know how to manage them.

So says Adam Kingl MBA2004 in his book, Next Generation Leadership: How to Ensure Young Talent Will Thrive With Your Organization. An educator, author, advisor, keynote speaker and alumnus of London Business School, Kingl had plenty of opportunity to observe Generation Y, as well as the organisations who hire them: ‘I directed, then supervised that is now titled the Leading Teams for Emerging Leaders programme at LBS for several years, working with young, high potential participants.  Since they were nominated by their organisations to attend, they are, more likely than a random selection of Gen Ys, the CEOs and leaders of the future. But their bosses just don’t know how to deal with them.’

The core issue, says Kingl, is a shift in priorities, expectations and values – a sea-change in the paradigms of work and leadership that set the upcoming generation apart from (and very often at odds with) the incumbents. And it’s not Gen Y’s fault.

“You have to remember that this is a generation that won’t have the security of retiring on a defined benefit (final salary) pension,” he says “The golden handcuffs and a job for life simply don’t exist for them. They’re also the first generation whose majority will experience the 100-year life, as explained by Professors Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott.

Longer life, shifted expectations

“Now, as we live longer, the expectation is that we’ll also have to work longer; the luxury of retiring at 65 will be replaced by the necessity in many cases of working into our 80s. Millennials will be spending probably 60 years of their life working, and that has shifted expectations and driven a feeling of optionality and greater flexibility in terms of where they work, who they work for and how long they choose to stay.”

Gen-Y workers are also demonstrably less materialistic than their forebears, argues Kingl. Salary, bonuses and promotions, while important, compete with concepts like purpose, development, culture and work-life balance. Capitalism, for Millennials, is a fungible concept, and as these emerging leaders assume influence, we are likely to see a swing in focus from outcomes to outputs: from bottom line and share prices to impact and value for customers, employees, communities and the world.

To manage this new generation more effectively, says Kingl, and to ensure that they thrive, organisations need to start thinking differently: “I believe there’s an onus on today’s leaders to recalibrate their own ideas and expectations when it comes to managing the leaders of tomorrow. There are things that the Boomer and X generations have to let go: the idea that young talent will stick around forever, that investment in things like development and training are tied to tenure, or that emerging leaders must be 100% dedicated to their job at the expense of all other interests or activities. We need to embrace their agility and recognise that the workforce can be a little more fluid without damaging our long-term prospects.”

But how do we enact this kind of shift in thinking?

Kingl’s work at LBS with emerging leaders and their companies has yielded key insights. For five years, he surveyed Generation Y participants, then interviewed them, their employers and other organisations across 44 countries, complementing the quantitative evidence with qualitative analysis across a sample that spans highly diverse industries and sectors.

His findings, which are shared in the book, point to a broad homogeneity in Millennial priorities – a generational “tightening” that stems from having much in common. They are the first truly global generation, the first to be digitally connected from the start, and a generation who will live – and work – longer than their predecessors by a considerable margin. Kingl believes that this consistency or homogeneity makes it possible to see Gen Y as a more coherent group, while recognising that to discuss generations does force one to generalise.  But he urges not to dismiss the findings merely because one can find an exception: “If we can better understand patterns and trends that are more true than not, then this can only benefit our ability to manage and empathise with our youngest colleagues.”

And this, in turn, makes it possible to distil insights about them into actionable ideas for their managers: practical frameworks, strategies and tools that he shares to ensure that young talent can thrive within today’s organisations.

Six ways to manage Millennials

The following are six tips from Kingl’s book to help manage Millennials.

#1: Articulate and live your purpose

Be proactive in terms of articulating your purpose and help your people connect their own purpose to that of your organisation. An impactful and cost-effective means of doing this may include putting together a workshop built around two central ideas: Why should talent work here versus anywhere else?  Why should customers come to us versus anyone else? 

#2: Hold one another to account

Organisational culture is something that needs to be engineered versus emerging organically. Aim for transparency, responsibility and accountability as a rule, and be clear about the kinds of behaviour that model your organisation’s ethos.  Consider what behaviours, if shared among your bellwethers, should become new norms.   

#3: Be fluid about development

Understand that development opportunities should not be tied to tenure. There are a host of cost-effective measures your organisation can take to weave training and development into everyday life, from shadowing to coaching to international placements to secondments. Aim to think more dynamically about this theme.

#4: Re-consider what work-life balance means

The number one thing that Gen Y asks for from their employers is work-life balance.  Too many organisations have resisted this request, but we all are now confronted with the necessity of remote working because of Covid.  Even when we exit the pandemic, our global, digitally connected workforce will inevitably have to get a lot better, and a lot more comfortable, with managing virtual teams.  We will not go back wholly to the way things were. 

Before lockdown, the term “work-life balance” was often a contentious topic. Kingl discovered semantic discord between the generations when it came to having a common definition of work-life balance. For Baby Boomers and Generation X, asking for work-life balance sounds like a “when” request, concluding incorrectly that young people requesting work-life balance just want to work less than their seniors when they were paying their dues, leading to the common misconception that Gen Y must be lazy.

Work-life balance: when, not where

For Generation Y, work-life balance is a “where” request: they see the 9-to-5, chained to the desk, face-time model as archaic when technology makes it possible to have constant access to work. Emerging leaders want greater flexibility and a higher degree of agency or autonomy – some margin to choose where and how they work.  Be sure that you are all on the same page and that you aren’t talking about terms that mean different things to different people.  Our current world environment amidst self-isolation is a good time to practice working remotely yet effectively. 

One insight that Kingl discovered after running an experiment with his London Business School programme cohorts is that some types of activities will yield better results if they are conducted virtually instead of face to face.  For example, brainstorming innovations or solutions to intractable challenges require as many insights as possible and reducing the noise of the usual voices who dominate the conversation.  An asynchronous virtual discussion board to solicit and respond to ideas can disintermediate a lot of the dysfunctions of dominating voices due to factors such as status, gender, culture or personality.   

#5: See the value in side-hustles (activities that employees pursue outside work)

Talented young people often have interests that go beyond their role or the organisation. Whether those are charity work, personal websites or projects that leverage professional skills, try to reframe these activities as sources of dynamism and opportunities for intra- and entrepreneurial development. Encourage your employees to pursue opportunities to learn and to share that learning.

#5: Be flexible about people leaving

After all, they might well come back. Encourage a sense of fluidity that leaves the door open so that after your leavers build new skills and knowledge outside your company, they might bring that back to your organisation should they choose to return further down the line. Embrace this fluidity and find ways to make it work to your advantage. Many professional services firms are world-class at cultivating an alumni network of former colleagues, even hosting reunions! 

As Generation Y accedes to leadership, Kingl believes the world of work is set to become ‘more human’.  The real challenge for today’s employers is to leverage this forward momentum to the advantage of the organisation – and the advantage of young people driving change.

“Research, polls and surveys repeatedly tell us that the majority of employees in today’s businesses are not engaged,” he says. “The management models that we have in place come from a time long past and are no longer truly fit for purpose. Generation Y feels this keenly, and this is the generation that feels the urgent need to fix it.  It’s our responsibility as leaders and managers to empower them as they prepare to rehumanise the world of work.”



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