Are You Sleepwalking Into a Leadership Crisis With Older Millennials?

2017 will mark 30 years since the ‘Millennial’ tag was first coined. It’s a broad label which captures, depending on who you listen to, professionals between the ages of 21 and 33 years old.

A lot has been written about the style, attitudes and aspirations of this cohort. While I admit to over-generalizing, research suggests this group is notoriously hard to attract and retain.

Older Millennials are often now on the cusp of moving into crucial middle-management roles. Yet they are often neglected in a business’ thinking and their own development could be suffering

However, the majority of commentary and studies I have seen focuses only on how to attract and nurture the younger end of the Millennial spectrum. But those about to graduate from university are at a very different career stage and mind-set than employees in their early thirties, who may now be raising families, paying mortgages and dealing with different issues in life.

These older Millennials are often now on the cusp of moving into crucial middle-management roles. Yet they are often neglected in a business’ thinking and their own development could be suffering. If businesses continue on this path, they risk losing their next generation of managers and potential future leaders. In effect, a succession time bomb will be in place.

I believe that succession planning needs to start at the beginning of a career, not halfway through it. In Hays we are constantly planning for the future to ensure a robust leadership talent pipeline is an integral part of our strategy across all areas of our business.

We may not be perfect, but here are some of the steps we take to incentivize – and retain – this very important cohort.

Build real purpose into your brand

Millennials value purpose over profit more than preceding generations. Ensuring they buy into your corporate culture encourages continued loyalty, especially in your middle-management generation.

To achieve that, you must ensure your company’s external brand positioning stands for something authentic and credible – and that you can articulate this in a simple, engaging way to existing and new employees.

Why do you exist as a company? What’s your purpose? What would the world miss out on if your company failed to exist? Why should employees get out of bed in the morning to work here? Does the ‘body language’ of your company tell a different story from your company website?

If there is a gap between what you are saying your company’s purpose is externally and what an employee actually experiences when they join the company, then reality won’t meet perception and you’ll lose good people.

As a recruiter, for example, my company’s mission is to put the right people into the right job for our clients, every time. That’s what we do for a living. We talk about why we exist, not about financial objectives, all the time, even though those financial results are important for our investors.

Also, ensure your brand is consistent both inside and out. Remember, it’s not about logos, colors and fonts, but values, behaviors and culture – the intangible things. Employer branding is not just good housekeeping. If your employees believe and live a company’s brand, your customers will get a much more powerful and authentic brand experience.

There is significant evidence to suggest that a strong employer brand and collective sense of purpose associated with high levels of employee engagement will help you to reduce costs, improve customer satisfaction and ultimately contribute to better financial results. 

Employees will go the extra mile for a company they believe in. Pride in your job and your employer organization is a powerful emotion. It’s also extremely rewarding and something Millennials want to feel about the organization they work for.

Flexible or remote working is often cited as one of the most desirable benefits for Millennials. But there is an equally strong body of evidence that suggests people thrive better and produce better results when they are physically together

Hone their leadership skills 

In business, we know how important soft skills are, particularly when it comes to leadership. Yet according to Deloitte, six in ten Millennials say their leadership skills are not being fully developed by their employers.

While there is always the threat that employees will take their new skills and knowledge elsewhere, I have always seen this as a risk worth taking, as nurturing ambitions often breeds loyalty.

Businesses should provide the chance for employees to upskill. But it is also a leader’s responsibility to expose employees to leadership opportunities as early as they can. Some businesses have gone as far as to establish ‘mirror boards’, comprising of mid-level managers who provide feedback to C-suite executives.

Whether or not this approach suits your company, I would always recommend keeping your Millennial managers close to the very senior levels of your organization.

Involving them in senior-level meetings will both empower them and also provide a direct feedback loop into senior leadership on issues and ideas. It’s a two-way street. It should also better equip them with the tools and experience to become more effective future leaders themselves.

Embrace the entrepreneurial mind-set

According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, more than 100 million start-ups are launched around the world every year. This entrepreneurship explosion has not gone unnoticed by older Millennials. The entrepreneurial mind-set is contagious and many mid-level employees are stepping away from the corporate world and starting their own ventures.

I think this is a self-inflicted failing of the corporate world. After all, every single corporate was originally born as a small start-up venture, so somewhere along the journey the entrepreneurial spirit was removed.

There is no reason corporates cannot be as fun, exciting and stimulating as a start-up, and at much lower risk to individuals. However, many businesses seem to accept this cannot be the case and continue in their labored, stultified way.

I believe that the entrepreneurial gene can be cultivated in the corporate environment. The first step of achieving that is to give your gifted employees the autonomy to cultivate it. Enabling them to act ‘like an owner’ will not only give them this control, but get the best out of them too – and will help to bring fresh thinking and new ideas to your business.

Evolve your workplace

Flexible or remote working is often cited as one of the most desirable benefits for Millennials. I have certainly seen many of our clients enjoy the positive effects of adapting their traditional workplace rules.

This is a difficult one, though, because there is an equally strong body of evidence that suggests people thrive better and produce better results when they are physically together, bouncing ideas off each other and creating a self-sustaining energy within the workplace, something remote collaboration cannot yet deliver as effectively.

My advice is that different types of businesses will require different rules, so don’t force-fit the latest management thinking onto your business if it simply will not work.

However, there is a need to find a way of accommodating the Millennials’ desire for greater flexibility. This desire is real and perfectly understandable and you will attract and retain them better if you can jointly find the optimal flexible options that meet everyone’s needs. 

A good test for an aspiring Millennial manager who wants this flexibility is to get them to design how it might be achieved in a way which solves their own issues while simultaneously making the business more productive and profitable.

Have them solve their own (and your) problem, in effect. This will also give you insights into how well they are developing as leaders and problem-solvers.

Stay in contact with departing Millennials. At a basic level, a business newsletter or sharing meaningful, targeted content across social media will allow you to inform your alumni of recent business developments

Nurture your alumni

Staff retention of strong performers should be the aim of every business, but it’s inevitable that some gifted employees will eventually move on to new pasture. Remember, though, that they may not be on your payroll anymore, but they are still potentially valuable to you.

Yet many companies fail to recognize this.

Cultivating a strong alumni network is important to me for three reasons: former employees can become external ambassadors for your company, these people might become future buyers of your service or product, and they might even return. 

In Hays we lose good people from time to time. The same is true in every business. However, I would always hope they leave holding a high regard for the business and, should the time come when they want to return to the fold, I welcome them back because they come armed with new experiences alongside their existing knowledge of the business.

So stay in contact with departing Millennials. At a basic level, a business newsletter or sharing meaningful, targeted content across social media will allow you to inform your alumni of recent business developments. As a business leader, you should also be making the effort to reach out regularly to check on their progress, offer advice or perhaps seek theirs.

For Millennial leavers, don’t burn your bridges. Leave well and act professionally. Stay in touch and never be so proud that you cannot pick up the phone when you think you’ve made a mistake by leaving and want to return.

Avoid the broad brush

A broad-brush approach to attracting and retaining talent will never be very successful, and the consequences of an ill-conceived people strategy can prove disastrous for your company’s pipeline of future leaders.

Unfortunately I see too many companies who don’t realize that most of their mid-level talent is headed for the exit door.

With growing concerns around skills shortages in middle management and Millennial discontent seemingly at a tipping point, now is the time for businesses to act and start addressing these concerns.

About the Author

Alistair Cox is CEO of Hays, a global executive recruitment firm. This article first appeared on LinkedIn’s Influencer blog. 

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