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How to work with millennials

How to work with millennials

Having trouble working with the younger generation? Here's your definitive guide to understanding millennials

It’s no surprise that this new wave of young people create some friction for older CIOs, but as the IT leaders of the future, it’s time to embrace your millennial counterparts, make them feel welcome, and more importantly, keep them engaged.

The CIOs of the future will be more diverse, and have a vastly alternative outlook to many IT trends like technology innovation, security, management style and career planning, according to the 2014 Harvey Nash CIO Survey.

This generation came of age when technology was already centrally important to strategic growth, and have barely known a time without email. IT workers raised in the internet age idolise figures like Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and Jack Dorsey, while admiring the likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

Experience with millennials

Bridget Gray, manager director for recruitment firm Harvey Nash, says she speaks with up to 10 CIOs every week, and working with millennials is a frequent topic of conversation.

“It’s either that ‘they’re absolutely driving me crazy, they’re quite hard to manage’ mentality where there’s frustration around their unwillingness to just be a good corporate citizen and follow protocol. Or it’s ‘aren't they amazing? Their creativity is absolutely infectious. I love that they haven’t got a fear of failure, we’ve never worked with a group of people who are less risk averse’.”

Regardless of your opinion of millennials, some of the best ideas are coming from employing this different demographic, but it’s how you manage them that will make all the difference. CIOs need to be proactive and pragmatic in their approach.

“We have a technical and creative team comprised of all ages, including many millennials, and overall our experience has been extremely positive” says Kelly Ferguson, CIO for Mi9.

“Generally we’ve found millennials to be highly educated and fearless. Our experience has also seen millennials having a bias toward working with teams and a tenacity that can handle fast paced change. All of these qualities make millennials an asset,” says Ferguson.

Benefits of millennials

Mat Doughty, general manager of technology for the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX), has also frequently worked with millennials, often challenging them to discover a new and better way of doing things.

“I think that generation just have no fear when it comes to challenges,” he says.

“They aren’t afraid of hard work and I don’t think they need to be spoon fed. My experience has been - you set the goal or target and just release the reigns and they find a way to get there, with a pretty creative result.

Ferguson too has seen a creative focus on change and innovation working with millennials at Mi9, remarking at their general adaptability.

“The two standout contributions we see consistently from millennials on our team is an incredible amount of tech savvy and a change-focused work ethic ... this familiarity and ease of integrating technology into everyday life has been very valuable in our product and technical thinking,” she says.

“Most [millennials] have begun work in the change economy where adaptability to change wasn’t something they had to learn five or even 10 years into their careers, it was a requirement for most in their first role.”

The everyday approach to technology combined with this malleable nature allows millennials to work within agile frameworks with ease, according to Ferguson.

“We see them fall forward without concern or ego and we see them thinking about change as a tool to propel our business forward rather than hold us back.”

Achieving the right culture

Culture changes come from the top, so working with millennials means taking on an appropriate management style, while being selective about what personalities will fit your specific working environment.

“We have tried to recruit based more on personality traits and communication skills versus raw technical results so I think we have really benefitted from that mix,” says Doughty.

Taking the time to find out what motivates them will pay off in spades, according to Gray, because the reality is for millennials it’s not just about joining a company, or having a more traditional career, it has to be a good fit.

“It’s more about work life integration, like this isn’t just my job it’s who I am,” says Gray. “There has to be an affinity between the candidate and the business you’re putting them into.”

Good communication is also paramount to keep the culture open and considerate of individual needs.

Millennials want to feel heard and valued when it comes to working conditions and decision-making, and if they’re unhappy about something they will have no qualm about vocalising this discontentment inside the office or outside the walls.

“Listen to your employees, ask them what they would like to do, how they would like to achieve outcomes and success. Then adapt, change and modify based on that feedback,” says Ferguson.

If for some reason you cannot act on the feedback at the time, it helps to at least have asked and take their feedback on, or try to action something small off the back of employee suggestions.

“Explain to them why it’s not something you can look at now but you can definitely take on board and think about it and maybe revisit it next quarter,” says Gray.

“As long as you’re listening and they feel like they have a voice, it’s less likely to escalate to the point where that voice is negative and could actually have a detrimental effect on your culture.”

A sense of purpose

Millennials, like all demographics, need to be kept engaged to produce real value for the company.

Explaining the specifics of a certain goal they are working towards can help create a sense of ownership and purpose – something millennials crave.

“They don’t just follow direction because you tell them to… If you just work to deadlines and you’re just like, ‘okay guys let’s go, you do this, you do that,’ without painting a picture or playing to everyone’s unique strengths, it just doesn’t work,” says Gray.

“That openness is quite confronting for some people too … they think, 'I wouldn’t have said that to my boss', or 'I wouldn’t have thought that was my place after working somewhere for just three weeks'.

Millennials are on a maturity learning curve, but at the same time if you want to be a traditional command and control CIO, there are probably companies that can accommodate that, but I don’t think that’s the future of the CIO.”

Engagement can also increase if they have a role model closer to their age group who they aspire to emulate. Occasionally promoting a couple of millennials into leadership roles will help lift the others up and relate to their working methods more closely, says Doughty, in particular young women, who he claims are “amazing leaders” due to their enhanced emotional intelligence.

Real leadership

One major pitfall that Gen X and baby boomer CIOs often fall into is trying to be ‘cool’ to attract and inspire younger workers. Often this muddies the waters between IT leaders and their employees who would prefer clear direction.

“I think all millennials want is authenticity, and they’re craving the traditional values of a good leader, being really transparent, being a good communicator,” says Gray.

“Millennials do actually have a huge amount of respect for CIOs in their 40s and 50s, they appreciate that generation. It’s okay to be old school - it’s about being a mixture of old and new, by being open to the new ideas but still being able to leverage that experience.”

The same goes for the working environment, where too often CIOs and CEOs feel that adding a pool table or foosball stand and a beach hut will demonstrate a ‘cool’ approach to work.

“No amount of beach chair lounging or pool playing is going to make up for poor vision and bad executions, so while I still think it’s an attraction, don’t rely on it,” advises Gray. A better approach, says Ferguson, is to be direct, take on projects that are interesting and disruptive, and celebrate success.

Retaining talent

Employing engagement strategies is a great means of retaining talent, but millennials generally don't follow traditional structure, and their display of company loyalty will be no exception.

"They have very little sense of loyalty that you would get in older generations," says Doughty. "You have to make it attractive for them to be here all the time because their network is so huge now that they can move in an instant if something comes along that is shinier."

Along with engagement strategies already discussed, ensuring that millennials are working on interesting projects and feeling like they're developing their skills will ensure greater interest in what the company has to offer. Further, providing career opportunities, and getting them involved in roadmap development will help millennials feel a sense of strategic engagement, says Doughty.

Despite your best efforts, however, the most that many CIOs could expect of millennials is around three years, according to Gray. But it doesn't mean all your effort hasn't paid off.

"What we’re seeing more and more, particularly within IT, is young people come and do three years and have a great experience, and then leave to pursure a dream of a start-up or something," says Gray.

"The CEO and the CIO are really respectful when that person leaves; they might even buy some of their products and really support them and they keep it visible within the team, and then sometimes, as a result, those people come back into the business."

If ambitious millennials do leave to see if the grass is greener, it's important to treat that as a new form of talent management, ensuring they depart viewing the company and its leaders in a positive light. If they don't return, it will still do wonders for your corporate brand.

"It might not be that they come back but you want them to leave saying 'my boss was really cool, they understood why I wanted to do this, I did a great job there and would consider going back, so if you’ve got an interview there you should definitely join'," says Gray.

"You almost have to have an exit strategy," agrees Doughty. "I think it’s healthy to encourage them to search for roles outside as part of their career development."

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