Why CFOs Must Respect Millennials' Need for Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

Media coverage, social media networks bombard their audiences with stories about how difficult it is to manage millennials, who are portrayed as entirely different from their predecessors in terms of attitudes and behaviors in the workplace.

You might also have heard from your peers about their pain in managing these younger workers—usually defined as people born after 1980. Those “pains” include Millennials’ sense of entitlement, over-confidence, and disrespectful attitude.

But simply pointing out Millennials’ negative characteritics will not help in managing them. To begin with, researchers are beginning to question those generalizations. With a more solid understanding, senior executives including those in finance can have a better idea of how they can lead and motivate Millennials for optimal results.

According to a Morgan McKinley report titled Managing Millennials, the differences between Millennials and their predecessors have been exaggerated, though they exist.

The perception of Millennials as demanding, job-hoppers, never satisfied, and in need of constant feedback and hand-holding has some truth, but they are not unmanageable and employers can turn these characteristics into strengths that work for their organizations, the report says.

CFO Innovation spoke to several senior executives—including finance professionals and talent development leaders at Morgan McKinley’s recent event themed Managing Millennials in the Workplace: Challenges, Misconceptions and Recommendations—on the dos and don’ts when it comes to effective management of Millennial employees.

Millennials' being vocal makes us uncomfortable, but as leaders we need to be humble and admit we have weaknesses and we don’t know everything

Authentic communications and transparency

Millennials are seen as more vocal than their predecessors with supervisors about almost everything, which supervisors find embarrassing when they can’t answer some of their questions.

Samuel Tsang, Partner, Human Capital Leader at Deloitte Consulting in Hong Kong advised managers to embrace Millennials’ authenticity by managing their own vulnerability. “Their being vocal makes us uncomfortable, but as leaders we need to be humble and admit we have weaknesses and we don’t know everything.”

Being humble also means treating younger executives as potential partners, said Niq Lai, Chief Talent & Financial Officer and Co-Owner, Hong Kong Broadband Network. “Millennials are less experienced than us, but they are tech-savvy and want to be your partners,” Lai noted. “So let’s treat them as potential partners.”

Here’s how you deal with people as potential partners. First, you talk with them instead of simply instructing them on what to do. Second, think of their future development when you first hire them, Lai added.

Being open in communications is important, Tsang pointed out, adding that the TERA model could be useful to senior executives who want to learn how to communicate with Millennials they manage. According to him, TERA is defined as follows:

  • Tribe: Letting someone know he or she is part of the group
  • Expectation: Being upfront with people about your expectations of them
  • Rank: Letting someone know you two are equal
  • Autonomy: Allowing younger workers to make decisions

Focus on the outcome

While Millennials are criticized for their demand for flexibility in work hours, Tsang advised managers to focus on outcomes rather than the amount of time they spend in office.

“In the stressful work environment of my company, I work irregular hours,” said Tsang. “So does my team. I believe in giving them the freedom. They put in more effort in their work than required and it’s fine with me if they need flexibility.

Lai echoed Tsang’s view. “We at HKBN don’t believe in work-life balance because work is part of life, but our employees work 34 days less a year as we work 9-to-5 instead of 9-to-6. Besides we leave work at 3pm on Friday once a month and work half-days right before public holidays such as Lunar New Year and Christmas,” he said.

Employees don’t even have to show doctor certificates if they need sick leaves. However, if a staffer doesn't live up to expectations and among the bottom 5% in terms of performance, he or she will get fired.

Let Millennials try new things and communicate your requirements and expectations

Implement controlled risk

Millennials could be daring because they are less experienced—this is often seen as a weakness. However, Lai said managers can turn that into a strength. “They have no idea what works and what doesn’t, so you can let them try new things with calculated risk,” Lai noted. “Millennials make mistakes but they’ll learn from them. I call that ‘stumbling our way to success’.”

Teddy Liu, General Manager, Corporate and Talent Development, New World Development, agreed that Millennials need opportunities to fail and succeed. Having been in his current role for six years, Liu was previously in roles including auditor and financial controller.

“Millennials are sometimes too self-confident and want to demonstrate their abilities,” he said. “So the way to engage them is to respect that need, let them try new things, and communicate your requirements and expectations.”

In his company, Millennial employees were once asked to present their advice to the board on how they could improve communications on digital channels, Liu said. “My team and I facilitated this by looking at their presentations and training them to communicate in a professional and respectful manner.”

Invest in your talent development program and corporate culture building

Talent development starts from recruitment, according to Lai. “We look for the exceptional. In one case, we hired seven people from more than1,000 applicants,” he said. “If we don’t look for the best, we have a slimmer chance of finding people who are passionate about work and aligned with our corporate culture and vision, which is to ‘make our Hong Kong a better place to live’.”

At HKBN, Lai said, the corporate culture is focused on pushing boundaries and growing team members. “We don’t do PowerPoint presentations to help people grow—we bring them team-building programs that challenge them to grow as teams.”

Don't label and compartmentalize people

Getting rid of stereotypes is the first thing that a manager should do with Millennials and indeed everybody. “Labeling employees as Millennials, Gen-Xers and compartmentalizing them won’t help improve human capital management,” Tsang said.

“Millennials are not that different from their predecessors,” Tsang pointed out. “For instance, we change jobs for exposure and new experience regardless of the generations to which we belong.”

He added that companies can create alumni networks to stay in good relationships with former employees. “I believe that people leave us for good reasons; and you never know when your paths might cross again,” Tsang said.

Lai encourages younger employees to gain exposure by not staying too long in the same company. “I’ve had six jobs in 26 years, with the last 12 years in HKBN,” he said. “None of the CXOs in our company are lifetime employees. I once told a young employee to leave to gain new experience. And if that person wants to return to us later, he comes back as a more well-equipped professional.”

If there’s one key takeaway, it’s the need to respect employees’ need for autonomy, mastery, and purpose

Don’t create unnecessary hierarchies

According to Tsang, there are many partners in his company and each partner manages about 20 people. “What’s important is to provide frequent updates and feedbacks to staff so they don’t feel they are left out because of unnecessary hierarchies,” he said.

“Partners in my company also keep their doors open or they no longer have fixed rooms,” he added. “We want to make ourselves more accessible.”

If there’s one key takeaway, it’s the need to respect employees’ need for autonomy, mastery, and purpose, Tsang said. “Most of us believe in the importance of those three things. Millennials are no different—they are simply more honest about their needs.

"We need to cope with that as leaders and continue to take risk.”

About the Author

Teresa Leung is Online Editor at CFO Innovation.

Suggested Articles

Some of you might have already been aware of the news that Questex—with the aim to focus on event business—will shut down permanently all media brands in Asia…

Some advice for transitioning into an advisory role

Global risks are intensifying but the collective will to tackle them appears to be lacking. Check out this report for areas of concern