Managing Millennials: Turning Mistakes Into Opportunities

Everyone knows that in the advertising business it is all about people. And a disproportionate number of those people are young. This is generally a very good thing, with lots of energy permeating the place and fresh attitudes and ideas the norm. It has always been one of my favorite aspects of this business (along with the incredible margins … okay, not really).

About five years ago, I began to realize that we had a bit of a problem. Many of the young folks we were bringing in exhibited a quite different attitude than they had in the past. We were not communicating well, and far too many of them were not as successful as I felt they should be. What to do? What to do?

Mistake Number One – listening to a consultant instead of your employees

Well, that is what I did. I brought in a very bright lady who helped educate me and the rest of our team about the causes of the differences of style and perspective between the generations. While it was helpful to understand the theoretical causes, it was not particularly helpful in terms of giving me better direction on what to do to improve the dynamic here. When I asked her to speak to the whole agency about generational issues, it did not lead to the proverbial singing of “Cumbayá”.

Mistake Number Two – Talking to the press about something you don’t really understand

Yes, this was the big one … call me naïve, call me stupid … whatever. I thought it would be a charming idea to sit down with a local reporter and tell her about my experiences with our consultant and Millennials in general. When she called me the night before the article was to run and told me “my editor got ahold of it,” I knew I was in trouble. 

Needless to say the article was not flattering about my younger employees who, not unexpectedly, decided I was a real jerk. The article did, however, strike a significant nerve among its readers and resulted in television interviews on the subject as well as articles in Newsletters for College Counselors.

What Did I Learn?

That article also really forced me to begin listening to my younger employees, to what they really wanted and talk to them specifically about what they were or were not getting out of their time working with us. In a nutshell, here is what I learned:

  1. The idea of a career path the way I understood it is just plain passé. The idea of working in a linear way with defined objectives and rewards along the way just didn’t appeal to a surprising number of my younger employees. They wanted flexibility and a customized experience.

  2. It is about the team first and individual performance second. I had always noticed that Millennials teamed efficiently and effortlessly and realized that this carried through to their overall view of the workplace.

  3. Learning was at least as important as remuneration. In my early career I was an extreme carrot chaser. Put a goal in front of me and I went after it. I didn’t really care whether I was learning anything (although I usually did) along the way, I just wanted to win. Surprisingly, many of my employees did not have that orientation and needed to be motivated differently.

  4. It better have meaning. They did not want to work just for work’s sake, but for something that had a meaning beyond the dollar. 

After some serious soul searching and discussion, we made a few moves that we think have made a difference:

  1. We restructured our organization, which allows our employees to play multiple roles and leads to many, varied, career paths.

  2. We emphasized training and learning, which included an annual re-juggling of responsibilities.

  3. We started a foundation, and donate $1 for every billable hour worked into this employee-led charity.

As you might expect, it worked, at least to some degree, as we have higher retention rates year-over-year and have great feedback from our employee surveys (not to mention a couple of “Best Places to Work” Awards on our shelf). 

As for me, I’m still listening.

2 comments about "Managing Millennials: Turning Mistakes Into Opportunities".
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  1. Kate Berg from Collective Bias, January 25, 2013 at 11:33 a.m.

    Interesting piece Owen. I dare say the hiring of a consultant itself was not a mistake. It was the choice of talent you brought in. A good consultant should allow you to benefit from their outside expertise and perspective -and help in the construction of a dialogue with your team based on these observations. Last, they can facilitate creation of a group-centered plan to get to where it sounds like you finally arrived on your own.
    Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Zachary Cochran from CPXi, January 25, 2013 at 1:39 p.m.

    Nice work! Listening and attempting to understand needs to be modeled by the older generations so that we Millennials remember to do the same. I always appreciate when older folks (my parents included) do this well. P.S. Feeling heard (and thus feeling like we matter) is one of the most important things to us!

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