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How to Motivate, Lead and Retain the Millennial Worker

Last week we had the pleasure of presenting a half-day workshop for the Vermont Association of Talent Development (formerly ASTD) at Champlain College focused on the Millennial worker.  The room had a great mix of generations and professionals all wondering about this new emerging workforce. The assortment of organizations in the room and around the world are facing an enormous challenge:  how do we engage and lead the new Millennial worker, estimated to be 75% of our workforce in the next 15 years, and how do we transfer the knowledge of our existing generation, the Baby Boomers, who are estimated to be leaving the workforce at a staggering 6,000 a day.

Here were a couple key takeaways from the day we’d like to share:

Our current employee engagement numbers (spoiler – it’s not good): Employee engagement is about mutual commitment between the company and the employee.  Highly engaged employees are 480% more committed to helping their company succeed, 250% more likely to recommend improvements, and 370% more likely to recommend their company as an employer.  However, nearly 70% of our workforce report that they are disengaged on some level with their work and with their employer.  Employees with lower engagement are 4 times more likely to leave their jobs than those who are highly engaged.  Disengaged managers are three times more likely to have disengaged employees.  Bad managers are creating active disengagement costing the U.S. an estimated $450 billion annually!

Being a great manager is like being a Master Gardener:  For the workshop we deleted the word manager (because it seemed so 1990 and negative) and replaced it with coach (which is really what a great manager is) or Master Gardener.  Using the analogy of a garden (and providing a garden map as a fun, interactive way to learn throughout the day), we asked participants to think of themselves as Master Gardeners creating a healthy and vibrant team/garden.  What would a successful garden of employees, particularly new Millennials, need to be successful?  What helps sustain that garden and grow that garden?  As Master Gardeners are we using the right tools (nutrients, fertilizers, water, sun etc.) to suit the Millennial?  Poor managers use the ‘fertilizers’ that suit their own needs, a great Master Gardener uses the ‘fertilizers’ that suit what their plants need to grow and Millennials need a particular arrangement of nutrients and fertilizers to succeed.

Defining what a “generation” actually is:  A generation is defined not by the time period in which they were born, but by the life experiences that have shaped their outlook. For Veterans (1929-1945) their outlook was influenced by the Great Depression, World Wars, and becoming an emerging super power.  Veterans are often seen as loyal to authority, rigid, liking to be in control.  And, because of the Depression, Veterans are usually pretty frugal, disciplined and safe/conservative. For Baby Boomers (1946-1964) their outlook was shaped by societal chaos with assassinations and civil rights issues, as well as the Vietnam War.  Boomers are often seen as rebels, believers in ‘no news is good news’, and pretty optimistic wanting to put their mark on things.  For Generation X (1965-1980) their outlook was shaped by being the first real technology pioneers and is a ‘sandwiched’ generation by two larger generations giving Gen X a feeling of being forgotten.  Interestingly, it was the first time education was not only up front in the classroom with this generation but education was also presented through media like Sesame Street and therefore, this generation is seen as very independent. Finally, our Millennials’ (1980-2001) outlook was influenced by first a time of prosperity (trophies, 3 car garages, a safe and healthy childhood) which dramatically changed on 9/11.  Since 9/11, the collapse of our financial and housing institutes and fighting multiple wars, the Millennials are in a perpetual state of safety and security which pushes them to be mobile, nimble, and not really trusting. Interestingly though, the Millennial tends to be the most optimistic of all generations when it comes to the future.

How’s our soil? Do we have a fertile organizational culture for the new worker:  As coaches and leaders in organizations we need to look at our organizational structure and ask ourselves if we’re building an organization that can handle the way the Millennials want to work.  Are we transforming our communication so that it’s faster, more efficient, transparent and conversational?  Using the CAMP Model of Motivation, are we building workplaces that encourage competency-building, grant gradual autonomy, provide meaningfulness and show progress in multiple employee opportunities?  Our work on communication and motivation should lead to a honeycomb-like organization where leadership, knowledge growth and transfer, communication and motivation happen organically, collaboratively and with a survival of the whole belief.

Is our garden providing the right nutrients to our plants:  As we work our garden we have to provide the right environment to prosper healthy plants and weed out unhealthy plants.  As with any general population we are a going to have about 15-20% rock star Millennials, 15-20% toxic Millennials and the rest are just maturing, growing up and trying to figure out which way to fall.  A great coach works on the 60% of Millennials that just need a little bit of fine tuning, not on the problematic ones – weed them out!  One way as coaches we can better understand the Millennial generation and work with the ones that need a bit of maturing is by having the Belief: Behavior Conversation.  A Millennial’s behavior follows their own belief system which is sometimes not in alignment with the organization’s belief system (Ahhh we’ve reached the entitlement talk!).  Whatever behavior we see comes from that belief system – show up when they want, think they deserve leadership roles early, participate in unnecessary office/life drama, etc.  Uncover the current belief, and you’ll uncover what is driving the current behavior.  A great coach or gardener instills the desired organizational beliefs by having the conversation and helping the Millennial see some of the ‘faux pas’ that they may not be aware that they’re committing.

By stating the current behavior (“I see that you have been routinely 15 minutes late in arriving to work.”), digging into why the Millennial believes that current belief (“Tell me what’s going on here?”, “What’s your belief around that?”), and then building discrepancy around that belief by paraphrasing the Millennials’ response  and asking pointed questions (“And it sounds like it’s your belief that the organization should accommodate your belief/or behavior about that?…Let me make it clear what the company (or I) need from you…”), a good and candid coach can begin to change behavior.  A couple things to note here:

  • This is a hardball conversation – you are working the Millennial like you would a young colt that you know has potential but needs direct talk, firm pressure and some guidance.
  • Millennials respond well to “success” and “fairness” so establishing a belief system around “do you think this is going to make you successful?” or “I want to make you aware that this belief does not position you well for success and I want you to be successful,” or “If you do that, is that fair to others who don’t get that chance?”
  • Once you’ve reached the point that the B:BC has run its course and you have worked every angle on organizational beliefs vs. their beliefs and no behavior change is occurring its time to call this Millennial a weed and pull them out (remember weeds spread as do poor Millennial behaviors).

Building and supporting career growth lattices: One of the key retention strategies for Millennials is for coaches to work with their young Millennial workers to build a visual, career growth lattice.  So many times Millennials leave an organization because they simply don’t see the plan for their growth or future with the company.  The growth lattice helps to also alleviates confusion around where a Millennial thinks they should be in a certain time period and where you both set realistic goals to reach new levels of leadership within the company.  Growth lattices are also perfect for pointing out other accomplishments, growth points, multi-functional progress that don’t always require salary increases and extended benefits.  Growth lattices can include having the Millennial be on multi-functional and cross-functional teams, becoming involved with nonprofit associations to build free leadership experiences and represent the company outside of work, providing mentoring opportunities and skill scanning, sponsorship to go to conferences, sales meetings, and other industry meetings as a way to build competency and commitment, and encouragement to become involved in community volunteerism efforts.  The more involved and engaged you can get your Millennial in both the organization and the community around it the better chance you have of retaining them.

The group at Champlain College entered the workshop with an open mind.  That is key when discussing generations.  There are tools like the Belief: Behavior Conversation, the Growth Lattice, or the CAMP Method of Motivation, but if someone is unwilling to even give this new generation the benefit of the doubt then the tools are of no use.  This generation shows up with great promise – tech savvy, fast learners, team oriented, innovative and adaptive – they just need a good Master Gardener to help them get planted.


Want to learn more about the Millennial generation and our best insights and tools for working with this new generation? Pre-Sign up for our upcoming Millennial Handbook which will be released in the next few weeks.

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An innovative training and employee development firm located in southern Vermont since 1984, we specialize in helping organizations get the most out of their people by raising the bar, inspiring potential and partnering with organizations to build a people-centered, high-engagement culture.

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