Leading Millennials in the age of digital disruption.

With the successful launch of the Maersk’s digital centre in Bangalore, we are building a set up that will drive digital innovation and accelerate the digitization journey of the Maersk Group. Through this journey to staff it with hundreds of talented professionals, we have met a cross section of candidates with data sciences, business intelligence, automation, digital engineering & architectural backgrounds. Many of these are Millennials. In our conversations, what is striking is their clarity on expectations from the work place and their leaders.

Much is already written about this generation. Born at the cusp of a millennium from early 1980s to 2000, this is a generation that gets maximum bad press these days, often viewed as entitled, needing constant reassurance, accused of shifting loyalties. It is also true that this generation is comfortable with Technology and is always connected.

So why does this generation matter, especially to the leaders of today and what is the secret sauce for success with them ?

The short answer to that is perhaps the fact that this is the generation that makes the largest part of the workforce today.

A more comprehensive answer is that the Millennials as a generation is redefining the consumption patterns across the major economies. Living in an era of constant discontinuity, Technology is changing how we live, how we sell, consume and how we work. Technology disruptions and Millennials together have created the future of work. With rise of the sharing economy, and an asset-light approach to ownership, they have a significant impact on the global trade.

To attract, retain and grow this generation, a Leader needs to build a workplace where:

Network is a Design: For a generation where network is an extension of their primary relationships and information is received and disseminated through these in real time, the primary expectations of this group is a culture that promotes connectedness by design. They expect to be a part of multi-disciplinary teams that are working together to address an emerging challenge. Like a Hackathon challenge, they want to work in an environment that is designed to accelerate the pace for problem solving through agile, multi-disciplinary collaborations and short innovation cycles. These self-organising units of competence merge into other autonomous teams after the problem solving is complete. This allows companies to have shorter innovation cycles and the need to constantly upskills the teams. We can see how the command and control style with top down flow of strategy and messages is thus inadequate to create functional work relationships or enhance organisational performance in a multi-generational workplace.

Passion for Domain: Digging deeper beyond the labels, any invested Leader will find that Millennials are as loyal as their previous generational counterpart. The difference lies in what they are loyal to. Unlike the Baby boomers with high institutional loyalty, the Generation X to their Career, Millennials are loyal to competence and expertise ie their Domain and not to a Company. To engage them, an organisation needs to create domain competency based careers and not job based. A carefully designed high impact experience journey map where they can problem solve and acquire transdisciplinary skills can be just that proposition. They have high expectations from the Leaders and respect their domain competence. They learn from experience and witnessing their Leaders in action.

New Need New Norm: As automation and innovations like Machine Learning, AI and social collaboration systems change the shape of the jobs, skills sought after and how we work, it is redefining the tools, rules and pace of work. It compels the Leaders to develop a new perspective on what strong work ethic is in the 21st Century. This Group values flexibility, be it in structure of work, location of work, start and end times of work or being able to use various technologies like their phone. This is one of the key challenges for a leader, to build a culture that measures productivity beyond time in/out, is beyond needing to be ‘visible’ but is flexible. This does not mean that the leader needs to hold back on setting the standards or let go of the deadlines that need to be met. It simply means the Leaders need to trust this generation with objectives/vision and not tasks. They need to be shown the monument & not tell them to cut marble stones or make breath taking pillars.

Coach through Fail forward: Raised by parents in protective environments with child proofed homes & ‘helicopter style’ parenting, work is generally the first place where Millennials experience failure. It may sound ironic yet this generation is a product of an ecosystem driven by focus on self-esteem, where their every move is recorded and they are recognised for even participating. This plays out even in their socially connected world, where self-worth is often linked to ‘likes’ and they only see positive experiences of their peers, failure is also public. The Boomer supervisor often thus must become an early coach to help the Millennial overcome this crippling fear of failure. This is the most critical investment in building Leaders of tomorrow.

Importance of Feed forward: Leaders often feel that this generation can be high maintenance, where they need to be constantly engaged with feedback. Leaders, often running against time find this constant need for encouragement unreasonable. However, to put this in context, this generation is only seeking what they have grown up with. Think back to the video games that provide constant feedback to improve performance. As a generation that has learnt from video games, they improve their performance with real time feedbacks. Video games have taught them that Leadership is rotational, no one person stays as the leader for long and your skill set determines the teams you will be on. Accustomed to extrinsic, external validation the Millennials thus seek constant positive reinforcements.

Ecology conscious: Millennials like to work for companies whose values match their own. This socially engaged generation likes to put their effort into companies that make positive impact and have a purpose beyond profit. Just as consumers, they are likely to pay for responsibly made products, as employees they are likely to put in discretionary effort into organisations that demonstrate commitment to the environment and that make a difference to the society as a whole.

Here am reminded about the Lord Indra that Devdutt Pattanaik speaks of. Indra, who is the God of the Gods in Indian mythology, has everything in terms of empire, wealth, power etc yet he is mesmerised with Goddess Lakshmi and is after her however Lakshmi is in pursuit of Lord Vishnu, the God who sustains the world by assuming his different avatars that ensure adaptive approach and evolutionary development. If we replace Lakshmi with the Millennial talent the question is whether you want to be an Indra company or a Vishnu company….some of my thoughts & learning from the current challenge of creating a world class Maersk Digital centre…

Special thanks to Alaukika Singh in contributing to this learning.