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Leadership

What Millennial Employees Really Want

Many millennials want to make the world a better place, and the future of work lies in inspiring them. Here's what smart companies can do.

[Photo: wavebreakmedia via Shutterstock]

Despite struggling with debt, recession, and the jobs crisis, millennials—who will account for 75% of the workforce in 2025— are not motivated by money. Rather, they aim to make the world more compassionate, innovative, and sustainable.

More than 50% of millennials say they would take a pay cut to find work that matches their values, while 90% want to use their skills for good.

The future of work lies in empowering millennial talent. Deloitte’s 2015 Millennial Survey found that 7,800 future leaders from 29 different countries say the business world is getting it wrong. Some 75% say they feel businesses are focused on their own agendas rather than improving society, while only 28% say they feel their current organization is making full use of their skills.

From my interviews with numerous millennial entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, and leaders with both for-profit, social enterprise, and nonprofit backgrounds, a similar pattern to this data emerges. Millennials want to work with purpose, and they want their workplace to be aligned with their values. IBM’s February 2015 millennial study found that millennial career goals don’t differ that much from older generations. Baby boomers, gen-Xers, and millennials all want to make a positive impact on their organization and help solve social and environmental challenges.

My parents' generation grew up without computers, while my generation can’t remember a life without Facebook. We're both looking for meaning in the workplace, so how can companies deliver on meaningful employee engagement? I recently spoke at SAP Sapphire Now conference about several ideas to attract, retain, and empower top millennial talent.

1. Don't Just Talk About Impact: Make An Impact

Many companies use words such as impact and purpose without seriously moving the needle on major social and environmental problems. Millennials want to work for organizations that are transparent about how they’re using their technology, their resources, and their talent. They also want to create shared value, make positive social and environmental changes, and increase opportunities for disadvantaged populations.

The best thing about impact is you can’t fake it. No one wants to work for a company—or buy a company’s product—that is destroying the planet. Recruiting the top talent of tomorrow begins with making a difference today.

2. Create Opportunities For Mentorship, Skills Acquisition, And Co-Leadership

A common critique of millennials in the workplace is they are impatient, entitled, and not willing to put in the time and hard work needed to succeed. I’ll be the first to admit "delayed gratification" doesn’t apply to millennials. We want change to happen fast.

This doesn’t mean millennials aren’t hard workers. On the contrary, millennials will work hard when you get serious about investing in their skills development. Young talent wants the opportunity to learn from someone with expertise; they want that on-the-ground experience to happen today, not tomorrow—and certainly not in five years.

I recommend companies empower millennials by offering co-leadership opportunities. Give young talent a chance to manage, develop a new project that excites them, and is of strategic importance. Pair the millennial project-lead with a senior executive, or someone with 15-plus years of experience. This not only makes a young staff member feel valued by their company, it gives them the opportunity to learn directly from a mentor. It also builds on the assumption while experienced staff have something to teach millennials, they also have something to teach their more senior colleagues. When it comes to technology and social media—or marketing, design, and customer experience—the person with the most innovative idea in the room may happen to be the youngest.

3. Value Means Inclusion, And Giving Young Talent A Voice

A 2014 survey by the Harvard Business Review and The Energy Project, an employee engagement consulting firm, found employees are more engaged when their four core needs are met, including:

  • Value: Feeling cared for by your supervisor
  • Purpose: Finding meaning and significance from your work
  • Focus: Prioritizing one task at a time
  • Renewal: Being able to take frequent breaks at work

Everyone wants to feel valued at work, especially millennials. There is nothing worse for a millennial than feeling as if your supervisor thinks you have nothing to offer because of your age or inexperience.

In their new book, When Millennials Take Over: Preparing For The Ridiculous Optimistic Future Of Business, authors Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter recommend creating fluid decision-making and organizational structures. They highlight companies such as Medium and Zappos, which have embraced Holocracy, a new organizational and management system that spreads decision-making responsibilities among a set of roles and teams, rather than a hierarchy of people. A fluid structure empowers more staff—especially new staff—to make decisions and take ownership of solutions. It’s hard to value your employees if you don’t listen to their voice, or give them a seat at the table.

4. HR Is The New Life Coach

The average millennial is staying at their job less than three years. This might be shocking to corporate America, but the truth is the average American of any age is staying at their job for about four years.

Due in part to rapid changes in technology and a volatile economy, millennials aren’t the only ones job-hopping. How do human resources departments invest in their talent if much of that talent is going to leave the company in several years? Embrace that the workforce of the future is going to be in flux. Currently, some 53 million Americans—or 34% of the workforce—are freelance. The number of remote and part-time workers is expected to increase.

Companies can no longer expect their employees to be loyal enough to stay for 10 or 20 years, and maybe that’s a good thing. HR departments should design training programs that invest in skills development, while helping their employees prepare for whatever is next in their career two, three, or five years down the line. A future HR professional will look less like Toby Flenderson’s drab character from the TV show The Office, and more like a beloved life coach. The coach will design personal learning plans for each young staffer based on what they want to accomplish during their brief two- to five-year stint at the company, and understand their values and interests well enough to ensure a smooth landing at their next job.

To remain innovative, impactful, and financially competitive, companies will have to go outside their corporate comfort zone to design roles for a purpose-driven millennial workforce.

Adam Smiley Poswolsky is the author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough: A Guide For Millennials To Find Meaningful Work. You can watch his talk on Meaningful Millennial Engagement from SAP Sapphire Now 2015 here. Follow him @whatsupsmiley.