How not to lose your millennial leaders: report from the Think Tank

By John Helmer September 10, 2015

Man holding sign saying 'Think Tank'The digital habits of Millennials create friction where organisations push for smart, speedy results from them – but provide slow, clunky knowledge tools with which to do it. Organisations that fail to use learning and communications technologies effectively risk losing their millennial leaders-in-waiting as a result. These were insights that came out of the second of a three-part Think Tank discussion we held recently in London.

Millennials are now the largest single generational cohort in the workforce and assuming leadership positions. To discuss how we can best support their leadership learning, and respond to the points raised in our recently released insight paper, Leadership, learning and the connected generation, we assembled an invited group of L&D leaders and now report their discussion under Chatham House rules.

Delegates were from organisations including Belron, The Home Office, IEDP, Lloyds Banking Group, MOD, Pragma Consulting, Rolls Royce and Vodafone. Most of our delegates have day-to-day contact with workforces that include large numbers of millennials, and some were from organisations whose workforce is drawn almost entirely from this age group.

Here’s what they had to say.

For the time-challenged … key points from our Think Tank discussion

  • Digital technology is the strongest driver of change in the business environment affecting the learning function, and also the strongest driver of generational differences shown by millennials
  • This driver doesn’t only affect the way millennials use and consume technology, but many other aspects of their organisational behavior and attitudes too
  • Failing to reap the efficiency bonus that would come from leveraging new learning behaviours like search, social networking and use of apps also risks alienating millennials
  • Tech-specific generational differences mingle with behaviours and attitudes due to life-stage in complex and nuanced ways as millennials transition to the workplace
  • Technology for learning is not an answer in itself – it can work negatively or positively: what matters is the quality of the organisation’s culture around communication
  • The fundamentals of leadership do not change: it’s all about authenticity!
  • The challenge we face is an adaptive one: learning innovators should move boldly, iteratively, and above all should listen to learners

Monkeys and machine guns

‘I want you to imagine that you are a troop of chimpanzees, and you’ve been hunted by leopards for millennia. Evolution has done its work. By now, even the weakest within the troop doesn’t actually get anywhere near being caught, because you see the leopard coming, you hear him coming (although he thinks he’s really quiet). As a result you have become very good at teasing the poor thing. And it’s brilliant fun. Then along comes a poacher with a sub-machine gun. And you try to use the same techniques that you used with the leopard to escape the sub-machine gun.’

The first part of our discussion hinted at the disruptive effects millennials might increasingly bring to organisations. Now our delegates began to look at the scope of that disruption; how disruptive it might actually be. With this tale of chimps and machine guns, one of the delegates was hinting that it might be a lot more drastic than anyone suspects.

To unpack this parable, leopard-teasing represents the habitual method of dealing with change through organisational learning – and digital change is the machine gun.

So although ‘nothing else is changing in the business environment more than the digital piece’, the effects of those changes in ‘the digital piece’ are huge. And they don’t just affect the way millennials use technology. They are also the cause of wider attitudinal and behavioural differences driven by technology that this cohort exhibits when it comes to learning and leadership.

Three reasons why workplace learning feels backward to millennials

Let’s start with some tech-specific effects.

1. Search

Search is a new and unique product of the digital age that has profoundly impacted the way in which information is accessed and processed. In the pre-digital age, information was organized according to a variety of ontological structures including taxonomies (e.g. Dewey system) alphabetic systems (e.g. dictionaries), charts and tables (e.g. bus timetable, periodic table) – or through narrative-based structures such as presentations and training courses.

Search does away with the need for some of this structuring, and pushes a lot more of it into the background by providing a much quicker way to get to the specific piece of information or knowledge you need. Search has a position of primacy within the digital realm – that’s why Google is one of the biggest companies in the world – and millennials have grown up with search as a resource and as a behavior. So much so, that it has become a reflex.

However, when it comes to narrative-based forms like training courses, organisations have been very slow to take on board the real effect of search. We still lock a lot of knowledge and information away in large, inert lumps of unsearchable narrative-based content called courses and training manuals.

Friction results when millennials, used to highly targeted forms of knowledge acquisition, are forced down the old route, through a process that to them seems unnecessarily clunky and time-consuming.

2. Speed

‘Technology is actually significantly decreasing time it takes to do stuff, which I don’t think our generation, the people around this table, really fully understand the impact of.’

Basic processes in retail banking that used to take up to 100 hours, can now be done in less than 2 minutes. But while millennials have grown up in the 2-minute world, the people who lead and manage them, quite often, were schooled in the 100-hour world. A lot of training, traditionally a part of the organisation where tech-awareness lags, is still in that 100-hour world. Again, friction results.

Millennials are coming into organisations that are very hot on meeting targets, quarterly sales figures, etc. rush, rush, rush …and yet where learning and communications are concerned, they are being asked to meet these targets using knowledge tools and processes that are bound to seem to them anachronistic, and even antediluvian.

3. Apps

Apps are an even newer invention of the digital age than search; digital helpers that perform a particular task drawing online information from multiple sources, and often driven by user-specific data such as profile, locational awareness, heart-rate, etc. etc.

Organisations are just beginning to scratch the surface of using apps to support knowledge and learning, but millennials are already habituated, for the most part, to this unprecedented means of accessing and using information.

When one of our delegate sat with a mixed group of learners in her organisation recently to workshop ideas for learning apps, she was astonished by the variety of innovative suggestions her millennials, in particular, came up with for the apps that could help them in their working lives. To many millennials, it will seem surprising that such tools aren’t already in place.

Apps also have the role for millennials of providing authoritative information – or at least, information more to be trusted than that found by surfing the open web. Highly sensitive to production value (if only subliminally, rather than as a conscious judgment) they know that the information provided within an app is more likely to have been proofed, vetted and approved.

Transitioning to the workplace

These more tech-specific differences mingle with other behaviours and attitudes as millennials come into the workforce, many of which may be more about life-stage than generational shift.

Millennials, like all first-jobbers, come to the party with attitudes and expectations formed by school and college which will in many cases be transformed by their contact with the actual world of work.

Within this mix it can be hard to disentangle what the causes of their attitudes are, and how durable they are likely to be. If a millennial seems arrogant on the subject of technology, it might well be because of the factors we have teased out above – and not because millennials as a generation are inherently arrogant. This disconnect they see between high expectation and lo-fi technology tools to meet those expectations with is something they might get used to, but the impression it might form that ‘the organisation is setting me up to fail’, could be a durable one.

On the other hand, if they seem slow to accept responsibility, it may be because they are still emerging from the adolescent world, where the peer group is everything, and sticking your head above the parapet is a sure way of getting it knocked off. It is a traditional role of leadership learning to accelerate this emergence – and point them towards a mindset where taking responsibility, sticking one’s head above the parapet, become not only thinkable but reflexive. Nothing really new there.

This interaction of life-stage and generational shift is complex and nuanced. As a result our delegates were not keen to claim generational causes for what they observed about millennials in their organisations, although many of those observations were interesting. Apparently, they are more concerned about the leader they are working for than the specific part of the organisation they are working in. Credibility passion, presence: these things are valued. Perhaps it has always been the same.

‘The fundamentals do not change,’ when it comes to leadership characteristics, according to one of our delegates. For him, it’s all about authenticity:

‘Someone who will always speak the truth. Someone who will stand up for me. Someone who will not gossip behind my back. Someone who will not let me down. Someone who will not put themselves before me.’

Role models, however will inevitably vary. While Margaret Thatcher is a model of leadership for many Gen Xers (although certainly not this one), she might mean less to millennials. Vladimir Putin, it was suggested, might be a modern-day equivalent – if decisiveness and ruthlessness is what you value. In the age of the Hero CEO, is this what leadership means to a millennial? Who are the positive role models for millennials today? (Answers on a postcard. Or in the comment field, if you’re a millennial.)

Building a culture of quality in organisational communications

So how are organisations reacting to this new dynamic? We heard both good and bad reports.

In one hi tech organization with a high proportion of millennials, the move to more innovative learning has had an interesting effect. The communications department has started working as part of the learning department, and the two have effectively fused. They use a variety of digital techniques, including video-based learning, app-based learning and very small, bite-size chunks of learning; all orchestrated via a social learning platform. The format has turned out to have considerable pull: they get 10,000 views a day in the UK alone.

‘What they’ve done is really listen to how the millennial population wants to learn. They took down all the barriers. They pulled in the right kind of technology. And they delivered the content in the right format. And now they’ve got the ears of their millennial population.’

This approach has turned out to have good effects with the other generational cohorts too. Focusing on the needs of millennials has turned out to benefit the whole workforce.

Less encouragingly, we heard of one example from a different tech company where technology has become a way of not listening to employees.

‘They’ve got massive staff turnover … they’re doing all this digital stuff, their average age is 32, and what is the number one reason they’re leaving? Nobody’s listening to them. Everyone thinks what they’re doing is communication, but it’s not. [The employees] are not getting the one-on-one time. They’re doing lots of communication – but it’s not communication.’

Given that communication, all the experts agree, is one of the central things a leader has to get right, this is a salutary lesson to take on board.

‘We face an adaptive challenge’

So what should be the right approach, if we want to move organisational learning into the future, so that it can match the expectations of millennials, and help them to become effective leaders?

‘There are no easy answers,’ according to one of our delegates, an experienced consultant who has innovated and piloted with many global organisations, ‘and digital is not an answer in itself. What we face is ‘an adaptive challenge’ – i.e. the rules have not yet been written. We should move forward boldly, iteratively, in a spirit of enquiry, and be prepared to change the script according to what we learn along the way. And above all, we should listen to our millennial learners.

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