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James Brooks

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Entitled or empowered? What we can learn from millennials


How do you motivate the more youthful elements of the workforce? James Brook takes some inspiration from Silicon Valley.

The recent Wall Street Journal article ‘At Facebook, Boss is a dirty word’ outlines how companies can engage positively with millennials – defined as those born after 1980 – to strengthen their innovation, culture and results. According to the article, Facebook has created a unique culture as the company has been built by millennials. Its inclusive culture is characterised by a high degree of empowerment where decision-making is highly devolved and management is openly criticised by employees. There is a strong focus on strengths-based management practices where employees are encouraged to build on their strengths from the outset and are allocated assignments that play to those strengths. Rather than ignoring weaker areas, employees are encouraged to find workarounds to reduce any downside of these.

But do these practices really work, and what can we learn from companies like Facebook about how to attract, retain and motivate millennials, as well as employees more generally?

Many managers and senior employees, particularly baby boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – are sceptical of work practices by companies like Facebook as they see these leading to an entitlement mindset among younger employees. This criticism arises from their own experiences of centralised decision-making, progress based on steady and rigid career paths, and a focus on fixing weaknesses to achieve progress. They therefore believe that millennials are too indulged and this gives rise to unrealistic expectations and an undisciplined work culture. Of course, some of these points may be valid. However, the reality is that the world is changing at breakneck speed and organisations that don’t adapt to these demographic changes will get left behind in the race to hire, retain and leverage the best talent. So what can organisations do to build a millennial-friendly culture like Facebook’s?

Build inclusive, strengths-based teams

At companies like Rackspace, Moonpig and Facebook, employees are encouraged to become more aware of, and fully deploy, their natural strengths to achieve their goals. So, if they are passionate about building relationships, they might be tasked with the job of growing several major client accounts. At Rackspace, employees even have their top strengths on their employee badge. Employees are also not expected to be ‘well-rounded’. They are empowered to call on co-workers for help in areas where they don’t have as many strengths. A good analogy here is professional sport. Rather than trying to turn every Olympic sportsperson or World Cup footballer into an expert all-rounder, it makes more sense to focus on areas of natural strength and excellence.

By building highly energised, complementary teams, these companies become ‘talent magnets’ and outperform their rivals by an impressive margin, as employees want to go the ‘extra mile’ and remain loyal to the company.

Devolve power to those on the frontline

Millennials, like many other employees, value freedom at work – they want to be clear on the goals that need to be achieved, as well as how success will be measured. However, they don’t want their manager micro-managing the way they go about achieving their goals. They want some discretion in how the job is performed so they can bring their personality and strengths to bear in the way the work is performed. By understanding this, businesses can attract young talent with the ability to make high quality decisions, provided they can call on the support of their manager, or peer, when required.

Many companies are recognising the value of giving people more freedom to bring the best of themselves to work without constraining them. For example, Google enables its staff to allocate 20% of their time pursuing innovative projects of their own inspiration. Of course, this is an extreme example and there are many sceptics who argue this policy would not work in more regulated environments, however, it does underline the importance of giving people more opportunity to do their best work unencumbered by energy-sapping organisational rules and bureaucracy.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, the world’s most successful online shoe company largely built by millennials, underscored the importance of devolution by reminding us that “the leader’s role is to free people, not control them – to free their strengths, ideas, energy and value, rather than straightjacketing them with fear, rules and bureaucracy”.

Encourage challenge and diverse perspectives

High quality decision making is reliant on encouraging diverse views and open challenge. One MD of a large company expressed concern about a lack of challenge from staff on his top team. However, it soon became clear that the problem was due to his autocratic style, which allowed little scope for meaningful debate and challenge.

Millennials are by nature more challenging than their older colleagues and don’t have the same traditional ideas about respecting and complying with the direction of senior management. Creating a culture of inclusivity and openness will ensure everyone who is impacted by the decision has an opportunity to provide their views and ideas; this will in turn ensure a healthier and more innovative decision-making environment. Companies like Facebook, Virgin, Zappos and Google actively encourage this type of challenge to build strong, inclusive cultures where everyone feels their opinions are valued.

By introducing these people management practices – that have become defining pillars of the working environment at millennial-built companies like Facebook – companies will not only be able to attract, retain and motivate these younger people more effectively, but will also create a positive and productive culture.

James Brook is joint MD and founder of Strengths Partnership Ltd


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