October 12th, 2016

Through the course of my day, I talk with business leaders of all sorts about the challenges their organizations face in today’s ever-evolving landscape.

One particular topic that often surfaces is how to solve the apparent mystery of …The Millennials.  I’m sure you’ve heard the familiar themes – how do we relate, how do we communicate, how do we motivate?


First off, a little background - I am a 43 year old, GenX, white male professional. I’ve been in the workforce in one form or another since I was 12. I have had jobs across a wide array of industries, company sizes and roles. My work ethic was directly shaped by Baby Boomers - and in some cases, The Silent Generation before them. So I can truly understand the perspective of those of you who are flummoxed by these “kids” today.

But I must say, I’m a bit frustrated by how we, as a society, have gotten into the habit of referring to the younger generation in the same flabbergasted tone of voice we might use to talk about something like, say humidity.

Here’s what I mean:

Question: “Hey, how’s it going?”

Answer: “Overall, it’s been good, but boy, can you believe these Millennials?” (arms held up in a sign of hopelessness, implying that an entire swath of our workforce is essentially an oppressive condition that makes an otherwise challenging day downright impossible.)

Full disclosure: I live in D.C. - a city built on a swamp - so I have some experience with humidity.

Trust me, Millennials are way better.

But– let’s run with that idea for a minute. The most fundamental lesson about today’s workplace culture I can share with you is ironically the same advice I would give for handling humidity:

Accept your reality – and adjust your frame of mind.

Here’s what I mean:

1. Get Over the Fact that They Aren’t You

Accept Millennials (and everyone for that matter) for who they are. They are just as smart and capable as we were, if not more so.

Now, I am not suggesting that you give them carte blanche to do whatever they might feel like each day. But - you do need to be ok with the fact that they won’t always fit precisely into the mold you or I conformed to when we were coming up.

A key difference (as I see it) is that Millennials aren’t as inclined (as you or I might have been) to define their personal purpose and value by whatever they do to earn money. That can be a strange thing for many execs… I know. But, what I’ve found is that if you give them respect, transparency, and empowerment along with a clearly communicated expectation of responsibility and ownership - amazing things can and do happen.

2. Trash Your Old Label Maker

My team thrives on the opportunity to challenge themselves. They generally don’t want to be told that their role is precisely defined, and will remain so for the next several years. Sure, they want to know what their job is, and roles are important to them. But they also want to know that it’s acceptable (and encouraged) to look up from their immediate job, or latest social media obsession, see what’s going on around them, and speak up.

They want to be able to offer a question or an idea that may improve a process, decision or solution.  They want to have space and support to expand their skill set, or try their hand at something that perhaps they didn’t study in school.

To that point, I’ve found that sometimes our most talented individuals are actually migrants from a totally different discipline. In fact, no one in our company is a one-trick pony. The resulting mix of shared skills and individual perspectives has yielded a collaborative incubator full of dynamic connections, expansive ideas and frame-changing insights that are truly invaluable to the work that we do every day.

Call me crazy, but that seems like the type of environment many businesses would kill for.

3. Lead Inclusively

Don’t just dictate and delegate. This isn’t the classic, tiered, command-and-control kind of model. To be fair, there will be times when decisions must be made at the top and handed down. But, whenever possible, seize upon the opportunity to teach people how these decisions factor into the bigger picture. Open yourself up to the What, Why, and How questions. And when those questions do come, be patient, thoughtful, and relatable with your response.. Resist the urge to revert to the old MBA language and acronyms that we all choked down when we were younger. You don’t need to prove that you’ve been working for 20 years longer than everyone else in the room.  You need to connect.

I am a big believer in this particular point. For me, adopting this philosophy has yielded:

  • An exponentially more capable, independent and confident team
  • A near constant dialogue around innovation and improvement of process and product; and
  • Progressively more and more personal bandwidth to focus on strategic efforts.

4. Decide Whether You Want Workers or Partners.

Believe me - what matters to you really does matter to them – as long as you are willing to share. No, I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about passion, vision and purpose. These are concepts that we as business owners and leaders talk about all the time. And yes, we understand that it is our job to convey those outward and downward at all times.

BUT – stop for a minute and put yourself in the shoes of one of your employees. Has your vision resonated with each of them personally?  What I have found (and love) about my team is that each individual has found personal pride and satisfaction in the delivery of their work by virtue of knowing that they ARE the value of the company. The passion, quality and impact that characterizes a LookThink engagement is a direct representation of them as individuals.  There is no “I’m just punching my timecard” attitude.

Instead, there is a sense of ownership derived from the understanding that each employee has an impact, and that they are directly involved in their own direction within the scope of the company’s overall mission and brand promise.

From my perspective, this has made us more than just a collection of highly skilled artisans. We are much more than that. We are a highly specialized SWAT team of committed achievers.  

5. Make the Decision to Commit

This last insight is a good one to end on. It seems obvious to say, but from what I’ve observed thus far in my career - it’s oddly not as common as I would have assumed. Never forget, the relationship you have with your employees (Millennial or not) is a contract underlined by a shared trust. The successful outcome of a trust-based relationship can often be traced back to whomever it was that decided to “go first”.

What I’ve come to believe is that in this situation, that person should be you.

Be willing to demonstrate your trust and loyalty to your employees first - rather than assuming or insisting on the reverse. The respect and commitment that may result will be far more powerful than anything a regular paycheck could inspire.


Why does this matter?

As an inherently creative, problem-solving company, LookThink recognizes the necessity to cultivate and harness a pro-active, collaborative and action-oriented culture.  But as we all know, in today’s world, that sort of culture is becoming the desired norm for all kinds of businesses – not just creative services firms like us.  

However, I think it can be said that we aren’t all there quite yet.

I am by no means an expert. I am not suggesting that our model is best or would work for every organization with a large percentage of young professionals. But, given that it’s working well for us, who knows? Perhaps there is some piece of what we do that you could take and apply to your operation.