Millennials at Work: An Old Fogey and a Young Whippersnapper Figure It Out
MILLENNIALS! There, I yelled it. Which is probably how it feels at this point whenever you see it written in all its obnoxious buzzwordy glory. Some people love ‘em, some can’t stand ‘em, and most are just tired of hearing about ‘em, No matter how you feel about the 85 million “young” people born between approximately 1982 and 2000, they are probably affecting your work. It could be their peculiar consumer behavior and how it’s upending your product marketing efforts or it might be Blair, the new hire who asked for a standing desk, a Mac Book Pro, and permission to expense 75% of her data plan on her second day on the job. Talk of them certainly continues to bubble up in our work in sustainability, but not always in expected places.
First, there are the bureaucratic (what we sometimes call “legacy”) organizations, who seem painfully unaware of how to attract, train and retain this new generation amidst a massive wave of retirement and accompanying brain drain. They’re starting to realize how fresh, young eyes and ears might be critical to helping them get ahead of the market disruptions hitting them left and right.
Then there are brands and products - food commodities for example - looking to better understand their products’ risk and sustainability profile in order to avoid bad publicity while becoming the next “it” food (quinoa and avocado have set the bar pretty high).
It’s definitely tip of the tongue for our clients who are designing energy efficiency behavior change programs or completing risk assessments to avoid previously unanticipated market backlash – it’s obvious that the tech-savvy, social media obsessed and peer-influenced Millennials require a different approach than their Baby Boomer/Gen-X parents – but what should that look like exactly?
For today’s blog, I want to focus on the first “issue” with Millennials though – attraction and retention. After spending the past six months diving into the research and conducting interviews with Millennials in the work force, I kept coming back to Milepost herself. Here I was, a Millennial (aka, the aforementioned whippersnapper), making choices big and small about my career and thoughtfully considering how I felt about my company’s culture, policies, and environment. I realized that Milepost was my own personal petri dish. So, I wrangled my coworker, Luke Gebhard (a solid Gen X-er with the Dave Matthews Band CDs to prove it) into interviewing me and our CEO, Erik Froyd (the old fogey in this story), a young baby boomer who mentioned Bakelite rotary phones more than once in the interview, about how Milepost views and approaches Millennials in the office.
I hope you can glean something for your own work – whether it be how to bridge the generational divide before it becomes a chasm or how to reframe your thinking on Millennials to see their many strengths as well as limitations as employees, coworkers and customers. And, we had many laugh-out-loud moments during this interview. We hope that comes through, and at the very least, you have a smile on your face for the rest of the day.
Date: August 5, 2016. Locations: Luke and Ashley “Skype” Erik, in Seattle, from their co-working space (without dogs that day, but in close proximity to an onsite Kegerator) in Nashville
Luke: What unique values, qualities or characteristics does Milepost have that attract millennial job seekers?
Erik: Transparency and authenticity are two of the qualities that, I believe, are attractive to Millennials. We are an open book about our strengths and our weaknesses, company, history, performance, and challenges. Flexibility in terms of work environment, location and hours is important too. We allow our employees to work anywhere and anytime within the boundaries of client needs. But flexibility also means we have a long-term willingness to adapt and not get stuck on doing things a certain way when it’s apparent they’re not working – that seems to be important to Millennials.
Also, we are a mission-driven organization led by our values – we care about those values and build them into our operating model and decision-making.
Ashley: I think you hit on the root of what the company does really well, Erik. We are a mission-driven organization. I think there’s been a shift in how people view their work over the last 20-30 years. It’s no longer seen as a means to an end, i.e., just a paycheck to support family. Rather, most Millennials want to work for a company they believe in – they have to know and feel their work has meaning and positive impact, even if that’s through creativity or entertainment (aka, impact doesn’t have to mean working for a non-profit). Our work specifically around “saving the planet” was particularly attractive to me when I considered Milepost.
I also think one very attractive thing about Milepost that’s been obvious since I joined the company is how non-Millennials value Millennials – there is this culture of embracing and valuing us, which feels welcoming and empowering. In fact, something I used to consider a hindrance, my age, is seen as an asset by my coworkers.
Erik: I think my generation thinks of Millennials as a scapegoat for all the things we wanted to do but weren’t able to do. Now we have an excuse to do it! Kegs in the workplace? Performance evaluations based on productivity vs. hours in the office? Work space options that are cooler than cubicles? Who knew?
Luke: So what unique values, skill sets or perspectives do Millennials at Milepost bring to the company?
Ashley: Personally, and I think this relates to Millennials in general, I have a low tolerance for bureaucracy and unnecessarily complicated processes. Milepost fits my work style because it’s a nimble small business and there’s a sense of urgency to the work that Millennials typically embrace. We also bring our tech savviness – we are comfortable with various platforms and tend to digitize to make work more efficient and pleasant.
Erik: It’s immensely valuable to have a generation with a disdain for hierarchy and that holds employers to account beyond just taking care of shareholders – especially in a small business environment. My generation saw hierarchy - people knew their roles in the chain of command and accepted that and executed.
And for a small business like ours, it’s a huge leverage point to have a workforce that can adapt quickly to needs in areas like marketing and communications, especially with their tech savviness. Millennials seem to be able to pick it up and run with it.
Ashley: There’s power in recognizing where Millennials have strengths and handing the keys over.
Luke: Speaking of keys, how is Milepost preparing to be able to turn over the keys to Millennials in the future? What steps do you still need to take to ensure successful transfer of knowledge and leadership?
Erik: The team we have in place now and our foundational business model are there – I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and the company would still thrive. Continuing to develop capacity and competencies where we need it will never go away – the market will shift or we’ll be bigger and have to learn something new with the complexity.
Ashley: Erik, I’m wondering if you feel you have been intentionally grooming Millennials or younger employees? Has that been purposeful?
Erik: Intentional grooming implies intent to target specific staff or people – like inviting them out to lunch to talk about their place in the company. That’s how it used to be for my generation – you were in the club (usually based on some superficial thing, like your family connections) or you weren’t. I’m intentional in ensuring the growth opportunity is there for anyone who wants to take it, and that I’m not getting in the way.
Ashley: I kinda figured that’s what you might say. I actually think Milepost and other companies should strike a balance if they want to support Millennials as leaders – it’s not ideal that people should have to groom themselves. And the vast majority of Millennials are unhappy with typical corporate performance review and feedback processes; it’s not consistent or frequent enough. As a small business, feedback should be easier for us, but we can’t always find the time. We need to be more intentional in our feedback to develop leaders, which goes beyond paying them compliments.
Erik: I have continued interest in seeing what that looks like at Milepost – I’m open to designing ways we can build that feedback process at the company.
Luke: How have you been successful in balancing the needs and perspectives of Millennial employees with the company's bottom line? Are these more mutually reinforcing or more mutually exclusive in your opinion?
Ashley: First – let’s not forget that we have a triple bottom line. I have to say that – it’s important!
To answer your question though, we are getting better all the time at getting younger employees trained and onboarded more quickly and more effectively to understand what their particular role is, where the boundaries are squishy and where they can grow. This includes an actual onboarding process where new hires spend time with everyone at the company, do a lot of shadowing and practicing with case studies before jumping in.
Another way I think we have been successful is encouraging a culture of embracing change, creativity and improvement, which is helpful for all generations at Milepost. It helps us to be better consultants and project managers for our clients - as the market shifts, we shift with it and this helps us retain our existing clients and attract new ones.
Erik: Millennials’ willingness to not have a completely clear playbook and to jump in is valuable – technology, networking and not letting even implied hierarchy get in the way is incredibly valuable to the company’s effectiveness. On the other hand, real value runs much deeper than “number of connections”, “number of likes”, and having the right font on top of the perfect photo image background. Our experience at Milepost has been overwhelmingly mutually reinforcing. If there were sacred cows, the whippersnappers found them more appropriate pastures to graze. And at the same time, the “tried and true” KPI’s like margin, quick ratio, utilization rate and pipeline are embraced and celebrated, even though they are leather-bound and well-worn.
Luke: In closing, what’s the biggest pain in the ass about Millennials?
Erik: That they think we (Boomers and Gen-Xers) know more than we actually do. And while we do our best to create the impression that we do in fact know everything, they should know better. They are, after all, millennials.
Ashley: Ha! I thought it was the other way around – that we think we know more than everyone else. Not to be a stereotype, but thank goodness for Dr. Google, I guess.
If you enjoyed this blog and will be attending ACEEE’s Summer Study, be sure to check out Ashley’s presentation, "From #Selfies to Sustainability: Program Design in the Age of Millennials,” on Friday, August 28 at 10:30am PT.