Innovation, Leadership, Reinvention and Reconfiguration

Tapping Millennial (and Other) Talent from Every Part of your Organization

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Jamie and Denise

What do you do when the founder and chair of your biggest fundraiser—a major auction event– suddenly quits? In our small church community two young women, Jamie and Denise, rose to the occasion and assumed leadership of this auction, despite their lack of experience.  Not only did they immediately master and improve the complicated logistics of the event but, in just a few months, they had transformed it —incorporating technology, overhauling the design and converting a static sit-down dinner/silent auction occasion into a dynamic, interactive event with games, live bidding, dance and competitions that have expanded attendance and interest far beyond the community.

I had noticed their infectious energy before—constantly looking for problems to solve, initiating group activities, generating fresh ideas and taking on leadership challenges. They are thoughtful, imaginative, take-charge young women itching to learn new things, take on responsibilities and new challenges. 

Both happen to work in associations. Clearly their enthusiasm, capabilities and leadership qualities would be huge assets for associations whose leaders often complain about the lack of innovation, market insight or leadership among their staff.  I was surprised to learn, however, that neither of their associations would pay for them to attend the ASAE annual conference in Toronto or any other conference for that matter. In fact, neither association had a budget line for staff development of any kind. 

I remember when Denise landed her first association job about two years ago. She had just received a Master’s in International Affairs. She was brimming with excitement and enthusiasm. As the months rolled by I watched the light in her eyes dim and the excitement giving place to a quiet resignation, punctuated by a shrug of the shoulders. “Well, it is just a job,” she would proclaim. “It’s good that at least I have one.”

The association was drowning in busy work. While her role was membership coordinator, they increasingly diverted her to menial jobs such as filling in at the front desk, processing payments and registrations, etc.

This wasn’t a matter of team members all pitching in at crunch times for the sake of a larger, shared objective. Rather it was a matter of pushing down unwanted, meaningless chores to the younger or lower level employees. There were no opportunities for learning and growing; no attempt to make these employees’ roles meaningful by helping them understand how their contributions, no matter how small, became strategic building blocks of a larger architecture.  

 I have conducted Design Thinking workshops with only CEOs as well as with a cross-section of the entire organization. When working with cross-sections of employees, I have been amazed to notice that most of the bold new ideas; enthusiasm, flexibility and openness to new options displayed, stem from younger, low or middle level employees.Yet these employees have little status in the organization and their opinions and contributions are never considered for strategic decisions.

Even the most innovative CEOs I have met—those who believe in principle that ideas should come from all levels of their organization and commit to staff development—still take a patronizing attitude toward those lacking formal credentials. “You can’t expect staff to be on our level in terms of awareness and strategic intelligence,’ one executive in a CEO workshop noted, “but we have to slowly give them some opportunities.”

So how much talent and motivation might these organizations be squandering? 

 It is easy to discount talent in bureaucratic organizations because leadership  is equated with title and position. Yet unless you recognize, uncover and harness the hidden talent that lies squandered throughout an organization and among its stakeholders, it will be hard to compete and thrive in a market that demands continuous disruption and innovation.

Millennial capital is one of the frequent casualties of conventional, product-centered organizations. According to Gloria Larson, president of Bentley University, and Mike Metzger is CEO and president of PayScale:

For business leaders, it means recognizing that future competitiveness depends on embracing the talent of the millennial generation.Businesses must realize the importance of adapting to millennial employees in order to leverage the advanced, forward-thinking ideas that they can provide. For example, at PayScale we employ a great deal of millennials, and we have noticed the importance of giving frequent feedback to employees and receiving it back from them. After all, millennials have been used to receiving feedback throughout their lives from parents and teachers.

Human-centered businesses organize around the needs of people—employees, customers and other stakeholders—rather than the other way around. Millennials, for example, put people and relationships first and demand life-work balance. “Millennials are problem solvers. They want to improve things, not just defend processes and keep things the same as we’ve been doing over the last 10 years.”  

They thrive in organizations that empower employees, seek out their ideas, assign them real responsibilities for problem solving and utilize different ways of measuring productivity that do not rely on formal task assessments.Just about all organizations are scrambling to figure out how to attract or accommodate millennials as if, once a magic formula has been mastered, all problems will be solved.

Yet the issue here is not how the work place can adapt to Millennials but whether it can adapt to, and accommodate, human beings. The conventional, siloed organizational model fails to motivate, empower and tap talent and ideas from a wide range of employees, customers and stakeholders on a daily basis: those whose roles, titles or positions do not give them a formal seat at the table; those who are perceived as too young, too old, too marginal or unconventional, for example. It limits the potential value of both customers and employees by assigning them to narrow, rigid roles—buyers and users of their products; customer service reps; event producers, logistics coordinators, membership staff and so on—losing sight of their other dimensions that make them whole human beings and could contribute greater value. 

But guess what? At a time of short product cycles and limitless innovation needs, the assembly line model of employee management is useless.  This is the age of quick launches and constant learning through experimentation and adaptation.  You don’t need the one big idea or perfect strategic plan for the next five years but a mindset of constant re-configuration of what exists.

What I am saying is that you need, not titles and formal positions, but capabilities throughout the organization. Fortunately, millennials are dragging us willy -nilly to humanized, flexible organizations in which the Jamies and Denises of the world will be able to bring the very best of themselves, whole and untethered.