Adapting Your Strategy To Suit Millennials

Generational conflict is an issue that needs solving in the workplace


The Brexit vote and Trump’s election have really brought into focus the stark differences in attitudes and beliefs that exist between generations - most pronouncedly between millennials and baby boomers. The breakdown of polling by demographics in both cases was heavily split between young and old, with the older generation winning out, and it looks little different in the upcoming UK election. YouGov polls, to the extent that polls mean anything at all anymore, suggest that if voting was to end at 40, we would have a Labour government. But it doesn’t, so we almost certainly won’t, which will likely see another outpouring of resentment from millennials about boomers voting in their own best interests and condemning future generations to poverty and misery.

In the workplace, these divisions are often no less stark. Millennials now represent roughly 45% of the US workforce, and we are in the midst of a huge cultural shift as their attitudes to work and preferred methods collide with a generation whose experience of the world has been utterly different. With one born into technology and the other having witnessed its evolution and adapted, there is plenty of room for misunderstanding around one another’s behaviors, and colleagues are prone to forming hasty and false impressions of other generations based on ignorance around existing prejudices and general ignorance.

Essentially, older workers often have an impression of younger workers as lazy, entitled, narcissistic, and obsessed with technology. Younger workers, on the other hand, consider their older colleagues slow to adapt, inflexible, stubborn, and hold them responsible for squandering their prosperity and bequeathing a broken economy to their juniors. Such impressions do tremendous harm in the workplace, and they are often entirely without foundation. Most millennials are not lazy, and most baby boomers are not stubborn. There are, however, significant differences, and these must be recognized if employees are to work together and to an optimal level. Each generation’s upbringing has provided them, generally speaking, different skills to that which came before it, and while it’s important to share a common purpose each team member does not necessarily need to be equalized, rather their differences leveraged.

We sat down with seven strategic leaders from some of the world’s largest organizations to ask them whether the attitudes of a new generation of workers affected how strategy is formulated or implemented.

Maura Sullivan, Chief Strategy & Innovation at US Navy

Younger workers have grown up in a world where the exchange of information is instantaneous, non-hierarchical, and decentralized. This leads to the expectation that decision-making will be impacted by ideation that occurs across the organization, not just from the top. Younger workers want ownership and to understand how their efforts are contributing to the success of the organization generally. This requires a more expansive set of communication, collaboration tools, channels, and the ability for personalization of elements of the overarching strategy.

Wes Finley, Global Operations Lead of Social Connections at Coca-Cola

I believe this generation of workers feel that strategy is everyone's responsibility, not just a leadership or strategist-specific role. Anyone with experience or data should feel empowered to escalate issues and make powerful decisions.

Mina Seetharaman, Global Director of Content Strategy & Content Solutions at The Economist Group

I imagine that the increasing demand for transparency from employees has had an effect on how companies develop and implement their strategies. Certainly, this has to do with generational attitudes, but if you go back to something like the Enron scandal where a company's financial strategies and behaviors had a very direct impact on the well-being of their employees, I imagine this call for transparency and trust crosses generational lines. I think, perhaps, one of the biggest attitudinal changes affecting companies, especially established firms in long-standing industries like consulting and finance, is the fact that recruitment of the best business brains is no longer a given. Goldman Sachs and McKinsey, for example, are now competing with companies like Google, Facebook and promising start-ups for the top grads from the top schools. This affects recruitment strategies which are directly related to strategic planning.

Abhinav Bhatnagar, Director of Global Cloud Operations & Strategy at Google

Yes, to an extent. Companies have to adjust their approach in order to both effectively reach the millennial audience as customers and also be attractive to them as employers, and that requires a change in how the strategies are developed. For example, the millennial strategist working on a strategic project expects to have an early seat at the table and motivating them requires getting more attuned with what drives him/her vs. sometimes in the old world where a senior manager could be more directive.

Mark Blankenship, EVP at Jack in the Box

By far the biggest change I am seeing is that today’s workforce wants their work (and the organization’s output) to have a deeper meaning than profit. They want to connect to something bigger, something more meaningful… like purpose.

P.K. Agarwal, Dean and CEO of Northeastern University

As the Baby Boomers phase out, Gen X move into senior leadership roles, and Gen Y into senior professional roles, a new organizational culture is emerging. This new culture is a sharp departure from what baby boomers shaped over the last 2-3 decades. Accordingly, the strategy has to take these cultural shifts into account. As an example, Gen Xers have a low level of trust toward authority, while Millennials (Gen Y) have a high level of trust toward authority. The strategy has to balance these seemingly contradictory expectations of the future of the organization.

Heather McGlinn, SVP, Strategy at Wells Fargo

The key to any new strategy development is a feeling of urgency to make the change. Millennials, in particular, are determined to change their world and embrace technology to improve their lives. This feeling of urgency is very contagious and tremendously helpful as the fuel to drive change.


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