Modern HR in the Cloud Blog

Why We Should Learn to Stop Worrying and Love Millennials

June 9, 2014 By: Christine Mellon

Much is said and written about the new generations of employees entering our workforce, as though they are a strange specimen, a mysterious life form to be "figured out," accommodated and engaged -- at a safe distance, of course. At its worst, this talk takes a critical and disapproving tone, with baby boomer employees adamantly refusing to validate this new breed of worker, let alone determine how to help them succeed and achieve their potential.

The irony of our baby-boomer resentments and suspicions is that they belie the fact that we created the very vision that younger employees are striving to achieve. From our frustrations with empty careers that did not fulfill us, from our opposition to ?the man,? from our sharp memories of our parents' toiling for 30 years just for the right to retire, from the simple desire not to live our lives in a state of invisibility, came the seeds of hope for something better.

One characteristic of Millennial workers that grew from these seeds is the desire to experience as much as possible. They are the ?Experiential Employee?, with a passion for growing in diverse ways and expanding personal and professional horizons. Rather than rooting themselves in a single company for a career, or even in a single career path, these employees are committed to building a broad portfolio of experiences and capabilities that will enable them to make a difference and to leave a mark of significance in the world. How much richer is the organization that nurtures and leverages this inclination? Our curmudgeonly ways must be surrendered and our focus redirected toward building the next generation of talent ecosystems, if we are to optimize what future generations have to offer.

Accelerating Professional Development

In spite of our Boomer grumblings about Millennials' "unrealistic" expectations, the truth is that we have a well-matched set of circumstances. We have executives-in-waiting who want to learn quickly and a concurrent, urgent need to ramp up their development time, based on anticipated high levels of retirement in the next 10+ years. Since we need to rapidly skill up these heirs to the corporate kingdom, isn't it a fortunate coincidence that they are hungry to learn, develop and move fluidly throughout our organizations?? So our challenge now is to efficiently operationalize the wisdom we have acquired about effective learning and development.

We have already evolved from classroom-based models to diverse instructional methods. The next step is to find the best approaches to help younger employees learn quickly and apply new learnings in an impactful way.

Creating temporary or even permanent functional partnerships among Millennial employees is one way to maximize outcomes. This might take the form of 2 or more employees owning aspects of what once fell under a single role. While one might argue this would mean duplication of resources, it could be a short term cost while employees come up to speed. And the potential benefits would be numerous: leveraging and validating the inherent sense of community of new generations, creating cross-functional skills with broad applicability, yielding additional perspectives and approaches to traditional work outcomes, and accelerating the performance curve for incumbents through Cooperative Learning (Johnson, D. and Johnson R., 1989, 1999). This well-researched teaching strategy, where students support each other in the absorption and application of new information, has been shown to deliver faster, more efficient learning, and greater retention.

Alternately, perhaps short term contracts with exiting retirees, or former retirees, to help facilitate the development of following generations may have merit. Again, a short term cost, certainly. However, the gains realized in shortening the learning curve, and strengthening engagement are substantial and lasting. Ultimately, there needs to be creative thinking applied for each organization on how to accelerate the capabilities of our future leaders in unique ways that mesh with current culture.

The manner in which performance is evaluated must finally shift as well. Employees will need to be assessed on how well they have developed key skills and capabilities vs. end-to-end mastery of functional positions they have no interest in keeping for an entire career. As we become more comfortable in placing greater and greater weight on competencies vs. tasks, we will realize increased organizational agility via this new generation of workers, which will be further enhanced by their natural flexibility and appetite for change.

Revisiting Succession

For many years, organizations have failed to deliver desired succession planning outcomes. According to CEB's 2013 research, only 28% of current leaders were pre-identified in a succession plan. These disappointing results, along with the entrance of the experiential, Millennial employee into the workforce, may just provide the needed impetus for HR to reinvent succession processes.

We have recognized that the best professional development efforts are not always linear, and the time has come to fully adopt this philosophy in regard to succession as well. Paths to specific organizational roles will not look the same for newer generations who seek out unique learning opportunities, without consideration of a singular career destination. Rather than charting particular jobs as precursors for key positions, the experiences and skills behind what makes an incumbent successful must become essential in succession mapping. And the multitude of ways in which those experiences and skills may be acquired must be factored into the process, along with the individual employee's level of learning agility.

While this may seem daunting, it is necessary and long overdue. We have talked about the criticality of competency-based succession, however, we have not lived up to our own rhetoric. Many Boomers have experienced the same frustration in our careers; knowing we are capable of shining in a particular role, but being denied the opportunity due to how our career history lined up, on paper, with documented job requirements. These requirements usually emphasized past jobs/titles and specific tasks, versus capabilities, drive and willingness (let alone determination) to learn new things. How satisfying would it be for us to leave a legacy where such narrow thinking no longer applies and potential is amplified?

Realizing Diversity

Another bloom from the seeds we Boomers have tried to plant over the past decades is a completely evolved view of diversity. Millennial employees assume a diverse workforce, and are startled by anything less. Their social tolerance, nurtured by wide and diverse networks, is unprecedented. College graduates expect a similar landscape in the ?real world? to what they experienced throughout their lives. They appreciate and seek out divergent points of view and experiences without needing any persuasion. The face of our U.S. workforce will likely see dramatic change as Millennials apply their fresh take on hiring and building strong teams, with an inherent sense of inclusion. This wonderful aspect of the Millennial wave should be celebrated and strongly encouraged, as it is the fulfillment of our own aspirations.

Future Perfect

The Experiential Employee is operating more as a free agent than a long term player, and their commitment will essentially last as long as meaningful organizational culture and personal/professional opportunities keep their interest. As Boomers, we have laid the foundation for this new, spirited employment attitude, and we should take pride in knowing that. Generations to come will challenge organizations to excel in how they identify, manage and nurture talent. Let's support and revel in the future that we've helped invent, rather than lament what we think has been lost. After all, the future is always connected to the past. And as so eloquently phrased by Antoine Lavoisier, French nobleman, chemist and politico: "Nothing is Lost, Nothing is Created, and Everything is Transformed."

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