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How Do You Manage Millennials?

We asked three managers with a firsthand perspective on human capital: alumnus William Osborne, ’01 (XP-70), professor Elena Zinchenko, and Weekend MBA student Michelle Bialac.

For the rising ranks of millennials in business, 2015 was a watershed year: they surpassed Gen Xers to become the largest generation present in the US labor force. Yet another milestone is on the horizon—Pew Research predicts the 73 million–strong cohort, born between 1981 and 1996, will overtake baby boomers as the country’s largest living adult generation sometime next year.

Though millennials are no more or less a monolith than the generations that came before them, many managers have observed that members of this generation are bringing a markedly different set of values to the office than their predecessors. Millennials may be derided as tech-obsessed, approval-seeking job-hoppers, or praised as creative, adaptable idealists, hungry for personal growth. But one thing’s clear: they’re prompting executives across industries to reevaluate the traditional approach to management. We asked three Booth experts what the future holds. 

William Osborne, ’01 (XP-70)

Osborne is senior vice president for global manufacturing and quality at Navistar Inc., a Fortune 500 company based in the Chicago area.

Millennial employees take a fundamentally different approach to their professional lives, but they’re not the caricatures people make them out to be. They have a different value system regarding the role of work in their lives—work is one component, and not the centerpiece. They value experiences more than what I would call traditional rewards.

For example, I just had an employee, an engineer, recently quit the company and move into a completely different position, in purchasing, with another company. It was a fundamental change, and the main reason he gave was that he lived downtown and the new company was downtown. For him, work was a means to support his lifestyle.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. They’re more creative and more innovative—they look at things differently, and that’s what’s driving change. But they’re less willing to compromise personal growth and development for the sake of the corporation.

I think companies have to realize that they may need to pursue different retention and reward strategies with millennials.

William Osborne

I think companies have to realize that they may need to pursue different retention and reward strategies with millennials. They’re not as focused on upward mobility. When I grew up in the auto industry, you didn’t want to be seen as the first guy to leave; you wanted to be the last guy out the door. Millennials reject that kind of thinking. They’re more interested in personal growth. And because they may not be as focused on traditional career rewards, traditional strategies may be less effective.

One positive is that they’re much more collaborative than the generation I grew up in, and much more able to work in teams. They’re rarely competitive to the point of being cutthroat. And in our culture, since we choose to work in teams more and more, that’s a benefit.

They do like feedback, and they’re not shy about asking for it. I interpret that as a good thing—it’s an indication that someone wants to improve, and I don’t see it as needy.

One stereotype that is a knock against them is that managers from previous generations assume they’re not loyal because of how often they change jobs. That’s a stigma that they have to somehow combat. When I look at our statistics, the turnover rate for millennials is about 50 percent higher than for nonmillennials. You expect it to be higher for younger people, but their turnover is still higher than prior generations at the same tenure in their careers.

You can’t impose your paradigms on this generation. You’ve got to set proper expectations, but also maintain a certain level of flexibility. Their reward system is different, so making sure they’re competitively paid is not enough. If you’re going to refresh your talent pipeline, you have to bend a little. The labor force is dynamic and changing. And the stuff the people in this generation know is incredibly valuable.

 

 

Professor Elena Zinchenko

Zinchenko is director of research innovation at the Office for Research, Innovation and the National Laboratories at the University of Chicago and adjunct associate professor of behavioral science at Chicago Booth.

If you are born into the twenty-first century, the knowledge economy is your home, with its emphasis on autonomy, distributed networks, and individually defined purpose. And if you try to get a job at a place that was shaped by the twentieth-century industrial economy, with its focus on hierarchy, efficiency, and control, there is bound to be some tension.

 Millennials have grown up in an environment with some real differences from that of previous generations—one difference is that due to ever-increasing productivity, meeting basic needs and providing for the family is no longer the ultimate purpose of work. So the question becomes: “What else do I care about? And what do I bring to the table?” The other is that due to an unprecedented access to information, their choice sets have exploded in all matters of life—education, dating, and yes, types of work available to them. 

The old-school thinking that we all can relate to is “no freedom without responsibility.” You earn it. For millennials, the new reality is that they have experienced a tremendous amount of choice and they take responsibility for the choices they make. To them, there’s no responsibility without freedom first. This represents a profound reversal.

The question becomes: ‘What else do I care about? And what do I bring to the table?’

Elena Zinchenko

Any of these dimensions that young people value can be a source of tension, or an opportunity. Their disdain for hierarchy has given us crowdsourcing, flat networks, ride-sharing, and whistle-blowing that shakes governments. On the other hand, their emphasis on intrinsic motivation at work, whether it’s a higher purpose or a need to have fun, makes them reluctant to do the necessary grind work. Their ability to consume information, make quick decisions, and switch domains makes them flexible and innovative but may also prevent them from developing expertise in any particular field.

Employers are always motivated to bring talented people into their companies, and pretty soon there will be no one left but millennials for hire. Managers need to think about the incentive structure that can tap into their ways of thinking. If you can set aspirational but practical goals for them, offer autonomy, and give them organizational support that helps them define their work space, they’ll do wonders.

We’re morphing into a society where more of people’s basic needs are being met, and routine tasks are going to be outsourced, not only to other countries, but to artificial intelligence. So in employees, flexible human-specific skills, imagination, and individuality will be at the forefront more and more. It’s both liberating and also quite demanding of our humanity. In other words, no responsibility without freedom.

Michelle Bialac, Weekend MBA student

Bialac is a materials planning manager at Honeywell International Inc., headquartered in Morris Plains, New Jersey.

I’m a millennial myself. But I had an unconventional road and entered the workforce 15 years ago. I’m not sure if I hold my fellow millennials to higher standards because of this!

When it comes to skill sets, my generation has a lot to offer. In terms of software, analytics, creative solutions, and using Excel, these employees are excellent. They’re also very good at forming relationships and strong bonds at the office.

The drawbacks are mainly in what I see as a sense of entitlement. For example, I hired a millennial who was fresh out of college. On his first performance review, I gave him an average performance rating, which is typical of our company. He was incredibly surprised by this, and felt that because he worked hard, he deserved more, and even hoped for promotion within the first 12 months. Even after I explained that this was also outside of company policy, he was still disappointed.

They don’t want someone who’s going to say, 'I need you to complete this task.' They want you to say, 'I want you to reach this goal.'

Michelle Bialac

I also get a sense that, for some, feelings are more important than facts. The other day, I spent a long time calming down a new employee because she didn’t feel people were treating her right—they weren’t being nice enough to her. But she couldn’t give me a quote or show me an email for proof; it was just “the tone.” I can’t go to a manager with a vibe.

Overall, I prefer managing millennials and I think their skills outweigh potential attitude issues. They want to prove themselves and work hard; they like to think outside the box. And they want to take their work home—I know I’ll get more work out of them than the older generations. Millennials go the extra mile easily and without complaining.

But I think you have to keep this in mind when you’re managing them: they don’t want a boss—they really want a coach, or a mentor. They don’t want someone who’s going to say, “I need you to complete this task.” They want you to say, “I want you to reach this goal.” They want projects, and things that are going to keep their minds engaged.

It does depend on what kind of work you’re in—mine involves analytics and creative planning, and millennials are very good at this. When you’re looking for big ideas, it’s easier to get employees of their generation really engaged in change. And in business, we always need to improve, because if we’re not changing, we’re dying.

—By Alice G. Walton