Managing millennials

The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything.” 

Add in a reference to selfie sticks, and the quote above could be the general accusation of millennials today. In fact, it comes from a sermon preached in 1274AD and is part of the circle of life: every new generation irks the one that came before. 

To the Greatest Generation, who lived through two wars, everything came too easy for the “entitled” Baby Boomers. The Baby Boomers themselves had no patience for the angsty, “entitled” Generation X. Cue the millennials, who are accused of being self-obsessed and, wouldn’t you know, entitled. 

Stereotyping a whole generation is dangerous. For every immature millennial narcissist, there’s a mini Mother Teresa in the same age group. Across generations, individuals are all unique, driven by unique motivations. Still, there are a number of new forces – like the digital revolution and helicopter parenting – that have shaped millennials. Managing your younger team members effectively will require new skills and a different outlook. 

As millennials started entering the workplace in recent years, they brought a lot of good – they are technologically savvy, tolerant, innovative and they don’t fear change. They can see disruption from a mile off, and can help you strengthen your business. They communicate and express themselves well, and if they believe in your company’s mission, they can be powerful brand ambassadors. On the downside, they are accused of being impatient, obsessed with their own personal “branding”, in need of constant reassurance and always on the look-out for better opportunities elsewhere. 

“Retaining and managing millennials are all about creating a strong company culture that they can relate to, giving them meaning, and allowing them to thrive,” says Nokubonga Mbanga, founder and principal consultant at Self Insights. As an HR specialist, she has done a lot of work with younger employees, especially as part of graduate programmes, at companies like Nike SA, TFG, M-Net and Tiger Brands. 

Here are some ideas on how to manage and retain younger staff: 

  • Provide purpose to their work. They may be very self-aware and ambitious, but millennials also have a desire to make the world a better place. They grew up knowing that the planet is under threat and life is short, and they want their work to have meaning beyond money. Your job as a manager is to add meaning to their job, says Mbanga. You need to constantly paint the bigger picture: how your company is adding to the greater good, and how their activities can contribute. Connect them to customers and help them understand how they fit into the business. “For a millennial, it’s not only about contributing to the company’s legacy – it’s also about building their personal legacy,” she adds. 
  • Let them customise their benefits. Allow them to put their own stamp on reward packages and work contracts by including things that are important to them, for example a month-long sabbatical after a fixed period, or flexible hours. In addition, consider allowing them to work on their own projects on a Friday afternoon, for instance, says Mbanga. 
  • Add variety to their work. Many millennials combine short attention spans and an eagerness for new experiences with a raging ambition to advance. As a manager, it is critical that you help make their job interesting, says Mbanga. In multinational companies, millennials should be moved around to different countries. 

A recent report by PwC also suggests that managers give millennials special rotational assignments to give them a sense that they are moving toward something and gaining a variety of experiences. “Challenge them to come up with new ways to streamline processes and to exercise creativity,” the report states. 

Also, consider adding more rungs to the corporate ladder: creating and awarding them new job titles will help satisfy their ambitions. 

  • Be very clear about what is expected. Concrete targets and short-term goals work best with millennials. Because of their shorter attention spans, work should be broken up into chunks, advises Mbanga. “And then explain why the work is important. Millennials do not respond well to doing something just because the boss said so.” 
  • Scrap the bi-annual performance reviews. The Facebook generation is addicted to feedback in real time; once every six months just won’t do. And they also won’t be satisfied with getting feedback from their immediate supervisors: your typical millennial wants access to the upper echelons. They are used to complete transparency and don’t have much deference to traditional hierarchies. 
  • Give them a chance to shine. From their dinner to their new hairstyles, millennials love displaying their achievements on social media. Tap into this by creating specific slots at status meetings that allow them to share what they have done, says Mbanga. 
  • Set them free. Millennials want flexibility, and man, do they love their coffee shops. Set strict deadlines, but allow them to work wherever they want to. 
  • Technology is extremely important to them. Millennials are the first true digital natives. Make sure you invest in the latest technology, and involve them in decisions about IT acquisitions. 
  • Mentor them. The traditional managerial relationship does not work well with a millennial. Instead, you should be more like a coach. Mbanga encourages managers to engage with their younger workers on their long-term goals and helping them to see how their current activities can line up with these aims. “Also, encourage a more senior millennial to mentor new entrants.” 
  • Don’t quash their entrepreneurial spirit. Millennials are intrepid and companies will do well by encouraging them to think entrepreneurially, says Mbanga. 
  • Expect them to go. It is unrealistic to imagine that you will retain young workers for traditional stints of five to 10 years, says Mbanga. Make sure you have the right structures in place to retain institutional knowledge and to maintain warm relations with departees. After all, you may end up working for them soon. 

This article originally appeared in the 2 March edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here. 

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