What are the success secrets of the largest generation in the workforce today?
By Ruchika Tulshyan
It took Leen Kawas, the 32-year-old CEO of M3 Biotechnology, plenty of fortitude to raise her first million dollars for her biotechnology start-up. “I kept getting told that as a woman, and especially because I was young, being the CEO of my own company was ‘high risk,’” she says. Undeterred after being turned down by multiple investors, Kawas kept knocking on doors to grow her R&D-intensive start-up.
Eventually, in a two-and-a-half year period, her company raised $14 million; the final $1 million “took one email and one week to close,” she says proudly.
Kawas is among a growing cohort of millennials who have a C-level job title. Sometimes stereotyped as being entitled and lazy, members of generation Y (because they follow generation X) have earned a bad reputation in corporate culture. But as more millennials ascend the career ladder, their success not only can be seen as proof of what works in innovative organizations, but also offers learning opportunities for members of other generations.
Make no mistake—millennials are taking charge. Now that they’ve surpassed gen X as the largest generation in the US workforce—with 91 percent aspiring to leadership positions—we can expect that the millennial style of leadership is here to stay.
Kawas says that her generation is more willing to handle rejection and show resilience. For example, she cites her resolve to repeatedly fund-raise even in the face of barriers, including ones out of her control, such as racial and gender discrimination.
Kawas equates risk-taking tolerance with age. She eschewed a steady research job after getting her PhD, in favor of jumping headfirst into the uncertainty of start-up life. Kawas says it is precisely because she is young that she has been successful. “I like to take risks,” she says. “It’s an advantage to be a young business leader because you’re not influenced by earlier experiences, so you’re more likely to take risks.”
Many millennials are moving into senior leadership roles earlier than previous generations, with a growing number exploring entrepreneurship as a career option. A BNP Paribas report from 2016 found millennials launched an average of 8 companies each, compared with
3.5 launched by previous generations. Millennials were also more likely to launch their first companies at a notably younger age (average age of 27.7 vs. 35.3), with 43 percent higher revenue than those of the the boomer generation.
More millennials are rising in the ranks even within established organizations. Examples include Divya Nag, 25, who leads health tech at Apple, and Erie Meyer, the 33-year-old who once led the White House US Digital Service. What makes millennials successful—and what leaders from other generations can learn from their management style—makes for fascinating study.
“Millennials naturally and organically disrupt and collaborate to make things happen. They don’t believe that just because something has been done one way, it always has to be that way,” says Anna Liotta, author of Unlocking Generational Codes.
It’s a trait other generations could benefit from learning. Liotta calls it the “Uber effect”: when an established industry or process isn’t serving people, millennials are often the first to throw their hat in the ring to disrupt long-standing processes. For insight into what constitutes success today, here’s a rundown of traits shared by millennial leaders—and what other generations could learn from them.
The values-driven generation
Studies demonstrate that the generation born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s has earned a bad rap for being entitled, with an absence of loyalty to employers. On the other hand, when work aligns with their values, they are very committed. A 2016 Gallup study found that 21 percent of millennials had reported changing jobs within the past year, more than three times the number of nonmillennials who also reported changing jobs in the past year. An oft-repeated statistic is that the average worker will have seven careers in his or her lifetime. For millennials, this could reach as many as 40, according to Rohit Talwar, a noted futurist and CEO of the think tank Fast Future Research.
Millennials are also the least engaged generation at work today. The 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey, “Winning Over the Next Generation of Leaders,” found that one in four millennials would leave their current organization for another job, or “to do something different” given the choice. By the end of 2020, two-thirds of respondents hope to have moved to another employer; only 16 percent see themselves staying with their current employer for a decade or more. Statistics like this have left employers stressed about how to retain and engage their younger workforce.
“Misalignment of values is a big reason for the movement,” Liotta says.
A clash often occurs when millennials in corporate environments believe that work-life balance and opportunities to advance or do purposeful work are lacking. According to a 2016 study by Fidelity, millennials are willing to take an average annual pay cut of $7,600 to engage in more purposeful work or to be in a company culture that is more aligned with their values. When evaluating a job offer, 58 percent of millennials prioritize an improved quality of work life over financial benefits.
“Clearly, many young professionals are thinking about more than money and are willing to sacrifice a portion of their salary in exchange for a career move that more closely aligns with their values or passions or improves their work-life balance,” states Kristen Robinson, senior vice president, women and young investors, Fidelity Investments.
How does this compare with other generations? When asked about their primary concern in their first jobs, the majority of older Americans polled in a recent study cited making as much money as possible or learning new skills. In contrast, 57 percent of younger Americans prioritized doing work they found enjoyable or making a difference in society, according to a 2015 Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll.
M3, the company Kawas leads, is seeking to find a therapy for Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. She says she has been laser focused on making a difference to the families and communities affected by diseases from a young age and “couldn’t imagine working in a place that didn’t have the same vision.” Wanting to find work that could be impactful was her number one motivation for eschewing traditional career paths in her field.
Inclusion as a fact of corporate life
Liotta finds that corporate programs and language around diversity and inclusion (D&I) have a generational time stamp.Most millennials see these issues as facts of life, while other generations don’t. For millennials, inclusion was part of their world. It’s not just a good idea; it’s a fact that including diverse voices makes a better team.
Data back this up. A 2016 study by the Institute for Public Relations found that 47 percent of millennials prioritized D&I in a job search, 14 percentage points higher than gen Xers. The study noted that gen Y was more comfortable discussing D&I issues at work than their older colleagues. A separate Deloitte study, “The Deloitte Millennial Study 2017,” found that millennials, by and large, prefer business and political leaders who provide “opinions with passion” and who seek to “appeal to anyone who might feel ‘left out’ or isolated.”
When it comes to gender equality in the C-suite, millennials are more optimistic than other generations about achieving parity. In fact, 84 percent of millennials believe we could see gender equality by 2030, compared with 66 percent of baby boomers and 74 percent of Gen Xers.
Liotta urges other leaders to learn from millennials to accept inclusion as common sense—and good business sense.
One of Liotta’s clients is a large, global company that was grappling with how to make paid parental leave available, to be inclusive to more employees. “One millennial spoke up and decided to have conversations with senior leaders right at the very top, even when people advised her that it could hinder her progress in the company,” Liotta says. The millennial employee used data and research to back up the case for making paid parental leave ubiquitous at the company—by measuring her company’s parental leave against that of other global organizations.
“The employee began to build the framework and partnership to bring this up and challenge the status quo, but not in a disrespectful way,” Liotta says. “She related to people with influence but didn’t burn down the house in disrupting the way things were done. Eventually, she was able to have a huge influence within the company and bring about the benefit to all employees. More millennials are learning how to diligently and responsibly change things in their organizations without burning bridges.”
Speaking up and disagreeing
As the aforementioned story exemplifies, millennials operate best in organizations without traditional, hierarchical structures. As a result, many have no qualms about sharing their thoughts—even disagreeing with authority to do so.
“Millennials have always been encouraged to speak up and stand up for what they believe in—that’s what parents, teachers, coaches told them to do,” says Liotta. “They learn the value of having the confidence to speak up from a young age, so of course they don’t agree when gen Xers and boomers think that they should wait their turn!”
This can result in fiery clashes between generations. Liotta recommends using these as a learning opportunity. Leaders from other generations should be more “explicit, not implicit, about expectations and ideals.”
Meredith Moore Crosby, executive vice president and chief information officer at Leverette, Weekes & Company, laughs at the stereotype of outspoken millennials. “Yes, I’m loud, but I’m also strategic about who to talk to,” she says. “I learn who the decision makers are and how to make the case for what I need.” Crosby’s impressive résumé includes being the youngest director at McDonald’s Corporation and holding director-level roles at 3M and Comcast.
The 35-year-old cites an example of speaking up while working with a manager from the boomer generation, in a previous role at a large corporation. The manager insisted on holding team meetings early in the morning, which became difficult for some employees to attend. Crosby could see it was causing dissatisfaction among team members, but no one wanted to bring it up with the manager. So she suggested using teleconferencing for the regular meetings, with in-office meetings once in a while.
“Presenting technology as a solution can level the playing field if everyone believes they can participate,” she says. “That’s the advantage of having a millennial at the table—it’s the courage and enthusiasm to have the idea and get it done.”
Crosby’s experience is supported by industry analysis. Gallup concluded in a 2017 report: “Millennials are pushing for change in the world—including in the marketplace and the workplace. They don’t accept ‘that’s the way it has always been done’ as a viable answer. Millennials demand that businesses approach them differently and adjust the customer experience to meet their needs.”
Focus on employee experience over profitability
Studies have indicated that millennial leaders prioritize employee satisfaction over compensation. For example, Deloitte’s 2016 report states that millennials in the boardroom and in senior roles “have a desire to rebalance business priorities by putting people before profit.” This generation evaluates business success on principles beyond profitability, to focus on long-term sustainability. When millennials perceive that their organization prioritizes “financial performance before everything else,” only one-fifth plan to work at that organization for more than five years. Deloitte research also found that overall millennial satisfaction was 11 percent lower than average at these companies.
Anuja Singh, manager, systems engineering sales, at Cisco, says she found it eye-opening to see how much volunteering for social causes “excites” millennials. Singh is actively involved in coaching and mentoring millennials through Cisco’s various employee resource groups.
“I find [that millennials] will go out of their way to create opportunities such as [building houses for] Habitat for Humanity or organizing walks for clean water,” Singh says. Recognizing giving back as a largely millennial expectation, Cisco now offers paid time off for employees to volunteer for causes that they believe in. “I’ve learned that, for millennials, job satisfaction means being able to do meaningful work,” she adds.
Using social media for business
Social media usage is high among millennials. A 2015 study from Harvard University found that 83 percent of millennials have a Facebook account and 39 percent have a Twitter account. Most millennials are digital natives, and it’s imperative for leaders of other generations to understand how to use social media effectively at work.
“We found that millennials frequently use social media to voice their opinions,” Singh says. “Cisco recently held a social media contest about ‘love where you work,’ using social media. We found that millennials overwhelmingly contributed the most in that campaign.” According to Singh, seeing the enthusiasm with which generation Y employees took to media like Twitter and Instagram to participate in the campaign became a “learning opportunity for other generations at work.”
A 2013 McKinsey report urges senior executives of all generations to develop social media literacy. It is a skill that the majority of millennial leaders are already fluent in, and other generations should not ignore, stated the report. “When organizations and their leaders embrace the call to social media literacy, they will initiate a positive loop allowing them to capitalize on the opportunities and disruptions that come with the new connectivity of a networked society. And they will be rewarded with a new type of competitive advantage.”
More leaders are recognizing that waiting until an annual performance review to acknowledge good work, as in years past, is far too late for millennials. Sparked by operating in social media environments, where feedback can appear within moments of posting, millennials expect a similar feedback loop at work.
Cisco’s answer to millennial cravings for constant feedback comes in the form of the company’s Connected Recognition program. Any employee can use this internal platform to recognize another employee for stellar work. An employee can share a comment or upload a photo or video to commend a colleague for great work and nominate the individual for monetary or nonmonetary awards. Recognition can come from anyone, and not just an employee’s manager.
The program is widely used. In 2016, Connected Recognition recorded 230,472 “Recognition Moments” worldwide, with 19 percent of the awards shared by employees in different countries.
“We realized that internal public recognition was really important to millennials,” Singh says. “The program makes them feel like they are in a work environment that supports them and their growth, and that they work in the right place.”
Perhaps other generations are already responding to the millennials’ lead on this. There’s growing data to show that all workers, not only millennials, value recognition programs. A 2016 Gallup study found that only one in three American workers “strongly agreed” that they received praise for doing good work over the past seven days. Employees who don’t feel adequately recognized are twice as likely to report wanting to quit in the next year.
Do only millennials know best?
Although millennials sometimes seem to want to set the agenda, they could learn leadership traits from previous generations. Most recognize this.
Leadership is strongly linked to learning from experience, Kawas emphasizes. She credits her early successes to surrounding herself with “advisors of different generations whom I would listen to intently. Eventually I created my own path.” So she advises more millennials to learn from successful leaders of other generations.
Crosby says knowing how to build relationships with leaders of other generations has been key for her. She credits cultivating mentors from other generations as a strong reason for her success as a millennial leader. “I learned from them that taking risks as well as pushing to develop myself through professional programs would be important for me,” she says. “Most of all, I’ve learned to be very quick to separate my emotions out of work.”
Cisco’s Singh says millennials could also learn to wait to see the fruits of their labor, as other generations were taught to do. “When you’re hungry for change or to make an impact, as many millennials are, you sometimes forget that not all the pieces are together to have an impact in the short term.” Singh, who is part of gen X, says it’s necessary for millennials to “identify the right paths to success without being too hotheaded or impatient.” Gen Xers and particularly baby boomers who have seen economic booms and busts and workplaces where loyalty has generally paid off can coach millennials about patience. “There’s a lot to be said for experience when it comes to success at work,” Singh adds.
The rise of reverse mentoring
Perhaps one of the most promising signs coming out of the workplace is the rise in companies taking an active role in fostering interactions and trust between generations. That’s unlike in years past, when rising and senior leaders would only get together when absolutely necessary, says Singh. Cisco has built-in programs that encourage “reverse mentoring” between millennial leaders and executives from other generations. “Our employee resource group for millennials has heavy representation from senior leadership,” Singh says.
“In our recent global sales kickoff, C-level executives hosted a separate off-site for what we call ‘early careers,’” Singh says. “It gave millennials the exposure to senior leaders and the opportunity to have their voice heard, which is very important, as they want to work in an environment where they are heard.” In turn, Cisco’s senior executives gained insight into issues and opportunities that were top of mind for the younger generation of employees.
As millennials increasingly take on more leadership roles, it’s critical to both accommodate this generation and learn from it. By focusing on the best that generation Y has to offer, there’s an opportunity to foster greater collaboration among the various generations at work today, while building purpose-driven, inclusive organizations of the future. DW
Ruchika Tulshyan is a journalist and the author of The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace.