December 15, 2014

How Big Companies Are Missing It with Millennials

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How do you best utilize millenials in your big company? Just ask them.

Millennials get a bad rap.

(When I say millennial, I mean anyone who started college with a cell phone.) By 2025, 75% of the world’s workforce will be millennials. It’s a big group, and one that is often stereotyped.  They’re tech-savvy, cause-driven, and many other things. But if you want to know them well, it sure helps to talk with them.

Case in point: This summer I had three eye-opening conversations with three different millennials.

Conversation #1:  I talked with a guy who is getting an MBA at a top-10 business school. He  is the kind of guy big companies want to hire and retain for decades. Smart, driven, ethical. A Fortune 200 company offered him a summer internship, and it seemed to be the perfect step toward a long-term position.

The only problem is that after the summer, he didn’t want a long-term position with the company. Why? Because, in his words, “I basically did nothing all summer.”

The company shuffled him around, let him sit at a desk, but gave him no real responsibility.  It was a window-dressing job that wasn’t connected to the big picture. They gave him some tasks to do, but he spent the summer feeling patronized.

Takeaway—“Want to reach millenials? Don’t waste their time and energy. Give them meaningful challenges.”

Conversation #2:  This guy is in a Fortune 100 company and he’s a star. Still around 30, he’s already making over $80,000.

He has a ton of energy, great ideas, and thinks outside the box. He’s not a detrimental rebel; he’s a determined innovator. He’s the kind of guy that could take a company to the next level. That’s why Fast Company reports that companies with 30% young people in key roles are more likely to show aggressive growth.

The only problem for this guy is that there’s no room in the company for change. Every organization is perfectly designed to get the results it gets, and this Fortune 100 company is designed to get the same thing it got last year. Maybe more of it, maybe less, but essentially the same thing.  And this guy is starting to lose his energy.

Takeaway:  “Want to reach millenials? Don’t let your company be overly rigid. Prepare to be flexible and adaptive.”

Conversation #3:  I talked with a young woman who works in a private multibillion dollar, global consumer goods company in marketing. Though she wouldn’t say it so bluntly, she pretty much nails every task she’s handed.

The company is thankful for her efforts and pays her accordingly (over $100,000), but what it doesn’t do is develop her. Though she has bought in to the vision of the company, there’s no vision to make her better. Nobody connects her to the leaders, the heroes in the company.

Instead of doing on the job training and grooming, and instead of putting their best talent on the next generation talent, they trust that she’ll keep being solid. It’s the opposite of what I’ve heard from old Wal-Mart execs like Don Soderquist who talk about how Sam Walton was regularly interacting with those who would come around him and after him. These individual connections are what make the mission and vision come alive.

Takeaway: “Want to connect with millennials? Connect them with heroes inside the company.”

Three conversations, three takeaways. Three things that large companies must do if they want to harness the impressive intelligence and skillsets of millennials. (By the way, mid-sized and small companies must learn from these three lessons too. Your company must give them meaningful challenges, be flexible and adaptive, and connect them with the heroes in the company.) And if your company doesn’t connect with millennials, here’s the cost:

  • You can’t recruit the best. Millennials care less and less for the name on the stock exchange, and they don’t value the big company just because it’s big. Baby Boomers would have taken the big money and the impressive title from a well-known company. Millennials won’t buy it.
  • You can’t retain the best. Unmotivated millennials begin to say, “I might as well go work for myself” or “Maybe I fit better in a smaller company.” Just as you plan for your company’s future, you learn that your back door is wide open.
  • You can’t get their best. Millennials often begin to think, I just need to get my money but I’ll put my best energy outside this job. It’s the classic move of creating an alternative work or hobby passion that really consumes us.


It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Big company after big company—Google, Apple, and 23 others listed here is appealing to millennials.  You could be, too.

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