Stacey Engle worked her way up to become the president of the company she began her career with almost a decade ago. In 2009, she joined Fierce Conversations as an account executive/marketing lead, and as of November 2018, she was running the leadership development and training company that focuses on helping clients have effective conversations. And she’s only 33.
While Fierce, a small, growing company, doesn’t have a formal leadership development program, Engle said company leaders and mentors taught her how the business works and gave her a sense of connection to the company.
But this single-company career progression isn’t common for millennials. A recent Gallup study found that only half of surveyed millennials see themselves at their current employer in one year, and 60 percent reported they’re currently open to a new opportunity. Almost equally uncommon is millennial satisfaction with learning programs. In fact, Harvard Business Publishing’s “The 2018 State of Leadership Development” report found that only 40 percent of millennials and younger leaders — ages 36 and younger — described their organization’s L&D programs as “excellent” compared with 67 percent of baby boomers ages 56 and older.
Millennials aren’t getting what they want out of leadership development programs and learning leaders need to know why. By understanding millennials’ expectations and perceptions regarding leadership development, companies can retain more millennials, improve company culture and benefit the bottom line.
A Sense of Purpose
Diane Belcher, senior director of product management at Harvard Business Publishing and author of the “State of Leadership Development” report, said they heard loud and clear that millennials felt L&D programs lacked relevancy and application to real work and were unsatisfied with the core content of the programs.
Belcher said millennials need a sense of purpose in their work and a sense of connection to the organization.
“The opportunity to make leadership development programs relevant, contextualized to the organization and contextualized to the individual’s place in the organization are great ways to make that connection and to appeal to that sense of purpose,” she said.
The HBP report found that only about half of millennials said they see strong alignment between program content and the business issues facing their organization, including transformation efforts in progress. On the other hand, up to 75 percent of those ages 56 and oversaw such alignment.
To address the relevancy problem, Belcher suggested developing more teamwork and business impact projects — considering at the beginning of a program how it aligns to strategic initiatives across the organization.
“Then thinking about the goals of that initiative and how you can create action learning projects to make that applicable,” she said. “Creating tools that allow learners to take what they’re learning in a program and immediately cascade it to their team so they can become leaders — so they are teaching their teams as well as learning themselves.”
Belcher said giving millennials a chance to hear personal stories from leaders can help too. “It’s a chance to connect their own personal stories with the key strategic initiatives that they’re tasked with accomplishing,” she said. “Connecting work to the broader organization mission makes that work more relevant and gives them a sense of purpose.”
She said the more often millennials can make that connection with senior leaders, the more they trust what they’re learning and the more they can make a connection to the broader imperative. She added that millennials also have higher expectations in terms of innovation, in the modalities of the experiences they go through, in the level of personalization and in the types of learning content.
That higher level of expectation can be attributed to the world they’ve grown up in, according to Belcher. She said baby boomers grew up and developed in their careers in much more of a top-down, command-and-control hierarchal organization. In that context, leadership sets the path and the employees execute against that path — versus millennials who have grown up in times of constant change.
“They were raised in a different world and they are much more likely to have a desire to understand that broader vision, to consider the best path to execute against that vision,” she said. “It’s not just that millennials have this desire to have a sense of purpose just because that’s who they are. They want to have purpose because it’s how they’ve developed in their career; it’s what they know.”
She said if leaders can understand the reason behind millennials’ desires, it can be easier to make a connection and understand where the relevancy question comes from. “But at the end of the day, it’s incumbent upon all of us in L&D to understand that, because otherwise they are going to leave,” she said.
Lindsey Pollak, a multigenerational workforce expert, said companies could benefit from simply refreshing their examples in learning programs. “Talk about email, Slack and instant messaging rather than business letter writing,” she said. “It just makes it feel more modern and relevant as opposed to feeling like you’re doing an exercise that people have been doing for 20 years.”
Engle agreed that what she wants as a millennial is relevancy. “I want to be able to immediately use it after I get trained on something,” Engle said. She said most development programs are lacking relevancy — and employees deserve more from the programs.
“A lot of companies have used the same training programs through the years, and they’re just not cutting it,” she said. “They’re not modular enough, they’re not pragmatic enough and they don’t engage the whole head and heart of their employees.”
Engle said L&D teams must develop more modern, relevant programs, not just for millennials, but for all employees. “I would want more than 67 percent of baby boomers to say L&D programs are excellent as well.” She said L&D needs to drill down with the senior leaders on making the company values come to life and develop training that is tied to the company’s expectations and what it means to be a part of the company.
She said one of the challenges with millennial retention is that they expect that the conversation they had during the recruiting process is going to come to life, but then it doesn’t. “You said working here would be X, and it’s Y; this gap is too much for me,” she said. “L&D can help by solidifying what is most important for the company and developing the people to live and work in the way that matches the vision of the company.”
Engle said the more often companies stereotype by saying millennials will keep job-hopping, the more it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Skills for the Future
Pollak said there’s a lot of understandable fear and concern about which skills will be relevant in the future and to pretend that doesn’t exist would be a mistake. She said L&D leaders need to be clear about what skills seem to be the most important to the success of the business over the next few years.
“You might not be able to predict five, 10 or 20 years in the future, but whatever you know now, tell people,” she said. “Whether you are starting to recruit more people with knowledge of data analytics or Python or whatever it is in your industry that’s coming.”
According to the 2018 “Deloitte Millennial Survey,” just 36 percent of millennials and 42 percent of Gen Z respondents reported that their employers were helping them understand and prepare for the changes associated with Industry 4.0, which is defined as “the marriage of physical and digital technologies, such as analytics, artificial intelligence, cognitive computing and Internet of Things technology.”
Pollak said identifying the future skills needed for the industry is critical for retention. “If people feel that their own organization is not helping them prepare for what is coming next, they’re going to go get a job with a company that is going to provide them with that learning,” she said.
In fact, the “Deloitte Millennial Survey” found that 46 percent of those intending to stay at their current organizations for at least another five years say they receive help with Industry 4.0. Of those planning to leave within two years, the figure drops to 28 percent.
Pollak said training and skills have currency with the younger generation. “Skills that you can add to your LinkedIn profile, certifications and knowledge that can be measured are remarkably appealing to this generation because it’s not realistic that a young person in their 20s, let’s say, will work for the same company their whole career,” she said. “If they’re building skills that become marketable in the future either within their company or for another job, that has a lot of value.”
Don’t Ignore Soft Skills
With the coming automation, Pollak said soft skills may become even more important, as well. “Those are the things the computers can’t do: personal skills, leadership, communication,” she said. “We have to be clear about all the factors that make somebody successful in the organization and teach those and reskill people and remind them of that importance.”
She said L&D teams too often assume people know how to communicate on the phone, how to write persuasively or how to manage another person, but, in fact, those skills need to be taught. “The companies I most admire are the ones who don’t take anything for granted,” she said. “Those who say, these are the skills that are critical to the success of the organization — one might be Python, but another might be communicating across generations or getting along with colleagues.”
More than a third of millennials in the Deloitte survey said it is “essential” to a company’s long-term success that its employees and leaders have strong interpersonal skills, but only 26 percent are offered much help or support in developing them.
Engle said that’s a problem. She said the ability to talk about what matters and make hard decisions has significant top- and bottom-line implications. Additionally, she said leaders need to become more comfortable talking about emotions. “A lot of training programs miss out on the power of emotion because it’s a taboo topic,” she said. “Talking about where there’s frustration, where there’s opportunity and where there’s disappointment needs to be pulled into training and leadership development. It’s the humanity in work.”
Engle recalled one client telling her that he never went through a leadership development program that prepared him for how to respond when his employee confided in him that her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. “There’s no training for that,” Engle said. “This idea of showing up as the whole person and bringing emotion, that’s truly lacking in a lot of training programs — and millennials realize that gap more than others.”
Experimentation and Personalization
The HBP study also found that millennials expect more choice and autonomy than prior generations did. Pollak agreed that learning leaders must offer a variety of learning options for people’s schedules or preferences. She said asking people what they want, focus grouping and surveying is an old school strategy that’s still relevant. “I encourage learning leaders to experiment,” she said. “We’re often very nervous to try something new, but sometimes a small tweak can make a big difference.”
Belcher said they are experimenting with aspects like “following” colleagues — if a learner in a cohort experience likes the point of view of one of their colleagues in another region, can they choose to follow what that person is reading or learning post-program? “It’s more passive of an option than engaging in a discussion forum,” she said. “We’re playing around with things like that and seeing what moves the needle.”
She said L&D leaders should consider what aspects of millennials’ social behavior make sense in the workplace. “We’re all likely to share our most private stories on Facebook for all the world to see, yet it’s hard to get a learner to engage in a discussion forum following a program that they’ve gone through,” she said. “In the workplace setting, the same things that motivate you to park a little further away from the mall to get your steps in don’t quite work the same in a learning environment.”
Similarly, Belcher expected gamification to be a key feature that millennials desired, but in gathering learner research she found that personalization, motivation and reminders to engage in learning were more important. “It’s about understanding what elements are going to resonate most to achieve the goals of the learners themselves, because you need to meet them where they are,” she said.