It’s Not Them. It’s Us.

I hear a lot of frustration and complaining from leaders about working with millennials. “How can we work with an entire generation that feels entitled, does not want to work, has unreasonable expectations about recognition and promotion, cannot put their phones down and spends their lives on social media?”

I think it’s time that we stop blaming an entire generation for being a product of the world in which they grew up. Instead of pointing a finger at millennials, we need to understand that they are now the workforce we must engage to be successful.

After all, they’re not the first generation to want to work differently than previous generations. Anyone else remember the brouhaha over an entire generation that wanted to wear jeans and tie dye? How about a generation of women who had the radical idea that they could do something besides secretarial work and menial labor? Each generation of leaders has shaken their heads in bewilderment (and possibly disgust), wondering how they would ever be able to run a company with the next generation as a workforce. Boomers changed the workforce by simply working in the way for which their environment had prepared them — as did each previous generation and as will millennials.

So as organizational leaders we have a choice: continue to point a finger at them for being who they are as a group or figure out how to engage with them in a way that makes our organization the place they want to be.

One step in the right direct is to reframe the stereotypes, looking for how they can be turned into positives or used as an advantage in recruitment and retention. Hunter Lott (HunterLott.com), a national expert on HR and a featured Vistage speaker (who will be in Little Rock next month to work with my Vistage groups), puts it very eloquently: “It is a seller’s market for talent. You have to ask yourself, ‘Why would an A player work for my organization?’”

One way to begin to answer that question is to think of what we view as problems in working with millennials as leverage points for getting their best.

• The social media complaint. Yes, millennials grew up forming networks on social media. They are, as a result, far more skilled at navigating those networks than a typical hierarchical structure. So focus on creating engagement in the culture. Use internal social networking and online collaboration tools. Give them a way of getting work done more familiar to them than (possibly) to you.

• The entitlement complaint. Provide a clear and accessible path and process for growth — not just a time-in-grade requirement, but a learning path. Consider a long-term training and development program for higher performers that encourages their focus over a period of months or even years. Be clear about what it takes to move up and honest with feedback about progress and consider creating a structure with shorter term opportunities to earn advancement.

• The purpose complaint. OK, maybe you make steel-bolted widgets and you are not focused on saving the planet. Nevertheless, take time monthly to organize employees into teams that volunteer to clean up parks and empty lots. Instead of sponsoring a baseball team (because baseball was a big part of YOUR upbringing), sponsor regular food drives or health screenings for kids. Actively engaging millennials in organization and staffing these events can make you an employer of choice. Regardless of what your business does, make your organization one that will attract millennials with a purpose-oriented mindset.

There are lots of creative ways to go about attracting and keeping millennial talent; however, they all start with a single very important concept: Get over your finger-pointing and judgment about millennials and figure out how to engage with them at least partially on their terms. Consider the possibility that some of the changes you will have to make are actually good for the business — even if they’re not the way you’ve traditionally done things.

Like every generation before them, millennials have a different idea of what role work should play and how it should look in their lives. That is not new. And like every generation before ours, we have to figure out how to attract and keep the best and brightest if our businesses are going to grow and prosper.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, June 17, 2019.