The business owner's guide to managing Millennials

Tony Featherstone

They’re creative, innovative and capable of kicking the digital economy’s butt. They can also be difficult, demanding and disengaged if their employer doesn’t keep up. Meet the “Millennials” – industry’s greatest asset and potentially its biggest headache.

Millennials have a knack of confounding big companies. Employers marvel at a tech-savvy generation that is incredibly adaptive and resilient. Then wonder why many Millennials average about 14 months in a job and constantly move between firms.

Managing Millenials is a huge opportunity. Born between 1982 and 1993, Millenials (or Gen Y or Net Gen, as they are sometimes called) are the future of global business. As the first generation to grow up with technology, they will be the digital economy’s architects.

Millenials are better travelled than previous generations, more interested in “conscious capitalism” and corporate social responsibility, and have a stronger global focus. Arguably, they have a different outlook on life than previous generations that slogged up a steep mountain of home loans and kept the same job for years or decades.

Managing Millennials is a huge opportunity… [they] are the future of global business.

Critics say that Millennials lack resilience because their baby boomer parents constantly praised them and never gave enough “hard love”. Millennials supposedly grew up in the Everybody Wins A Prize generation and were not told when they sucked at something.

It’s hogwash. For starters, Millennials grew up during the September 11 terrorist attack and the Global Financial Crisis. They face the worst graduate employment market in decades, crazy house prices, and over-the-top university fees and student loans. Every generation thinks they had it tough, but Millenials face serious long-term challenges.

Also, Millennials’ fondness for frequent career change is an asset not a liability, and evidence of great resilience. As previous generations play it safe with the same job, Millennials take career risks to climb the ladder. They aren’t afraid of starting over in new firms. In the long run, they will become more innovative from working across firms and industries, develop larger networks, and become even more adaptive.

Granted, not all Millennials are like this. Some are slack and can’t hold a job. Others are prima donnas with an inflated sense of self-worth that will get punctured in the next recession. Also, commentary on Millennials, Gen X, Baby Boomers and every other generation that can be neatly put into a box is prone to generalisation.

But companies do need special strategies to harness Millennial talent. Here are six tips.

Millennials’ fondness for frequent career change is an asset not a liability, and evidence of great resilience.

Turn the career ladder sideways

A generation that grew up with mobile devices has no time for boredom. Unlike previous generations, they won’t do the same job year after year and die a slow death in their cubicle.

Consider a faster job rotation for them through the organisation, at least in their first year. Let them move across job functions, learn skills and meet people. Millennials are smart enough to know that going sideways in their early career is the key to going up.

Help them collect experiences

A terrific beer ad describes Millennials as “experience collectors”. It’s spot on. Map out how your organisation helps Millennials collect experiences: more exposure to key projects, greater variation in job tasks, leadership opportunities, participation in corporate social responsibility projects and charities, and so on. Helping Millennials create work and life experiences is a surefire way to keep them longer.

Tag-team them

A generation that grew up with social media understands the power of the crowd better than anyone. They have great potential to shape, lift and lead teams because they’re used to sharing information and, arguably, less narcissistic than previous generations.

Don’t believe the myth that Millennials are professionally egotistical and self-absorbed. Ever try getting in between a baby boomer and a promotion, or a mortgage-burdened Gen X manager and a pay rise? The point is: Millennials have a natural skill for working in teams, so use it.

Millennials are smart enough to know that going sideways in their early career is the key to going up.

Give them an open licence on the digital highway

Don’t try to stop Millennials using social media at work or believe they won’t search the web on your time. It’s not going to happen. This generation is used to exploring for information rather than having it dumped on them. Technology is blurring work and life boundaries, so give Millennials more digital freedom to do their job. They will pay you back in spades.

Would you like frequent flyer points with that job?

Millennials love travel. Some will defer joining the workforce or quit a great job to have multiple “gap years” in Europe. Good on them. Travel and the social skills and worldly perspective that comes with it will make them better employees in the long run.

Rather than fight their urge to travel, build it into their job. It might be as simple as providing flexible leave arrangements or including Millenials on overseas assignments, where possible.

Chew their ear off

No generation is more eager for feedback than the Millennials. Social media – and the ability to like or rate everything in real time – has led many Millennials to crave constant feedback from their employer. That’s a good thing, rather than a sign of neediness.

Find ways to give Millennials greater feedback without burdening your managers. Employment-engagement apps that allow staff to rate their job satisfaction are a good start.

Also, give honest, open feedback, knowing that Millennials – like every other generation when it entered the workforce – can be crushed by managers who still rule in the corporate Stone Age.

Tony Featherstone

Tony Featherstone is a former managing editor of BRW and Shares magazines.

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