I was presenting at the Aerospace Conference earlier this year, where something astounding happened. I was talking to the audience about ‘organizational culture’ and my experiences working with a small satellite manufacturer to help them improve their product’s reliability.
At the end of my talk, I was asked the following questions (which I have done my best to remember verbatim):
How do you accommodate the young engineers of today, who will only stay at one organization for a couple of years before moving on? Research has shown they typically leave within three years – so why should we invest time and effort into them?
If you are a team leader or manager that is searching for the answer to this question, I have some potentially bad news for you:
It is not them … it is you.
Millennials (and young employees more broadly) do not have some genetic mechanism hardwired into their DNA that means they get itchy or sick if they stay in the same place too long. Millennials don’t have non-maternal biological come workplace-specific clocks. Millennials can be some of the most committed employees you will ever have. They can be as smart as anyone else.
And according to Sarah Landrum, a contributor to Forbes Magazine:
Job-hopping millennials are more likely to earn a higher wage, develop their career on a faster track and find a better fit in work culture by changing jobs more frequently. The stigma is lessening as the positives are revealed.
So why is this happening now and not years ago? Well we know that:
millennials demand more of their employers than older generations did. And that is a good thing.
But is it really a new phenomenon? NO!
Henry Ford was faced with the same issue when he first introduced the assembly line in his factory at Detroit in the early 1900s. Workers went from working on an entire car to just making one (very monotonous) part. And while he was paying a fair hourly rate, he was losing employees. In one year, he hired over 50 000 to maintain a workforce of just 18 000.
What did he do? He introduced the $ 5 a day wage. This was more than double what it used to be. You can read more about it here. But instead of lamenting the fact he could not maintain a workforce, he understood that he had to make his company and workplace more appealing. It was on him. And he knew that doubling the wages was in the long run much less expensive than covering the costs of finding, hiring and training a new employee. Employees are free agents. They owe their employer ‘nothing.’
This whole ‘millennials never stay at my company’ is not a new issue. It might be new for you. But complaining that it never used to be this way is both wrong and unhelpful. Why wouldn’t a young employee move from job to job if they are likely to earn a higher wage, get promoted faster and so on?
For those of you who disagree, and perhaps believe that millennials have goldfish-like attention spans consumed by social media and ‘branding’ that drive their job-hopping, then you need to explain something:
why would a young (or old) employee ever leave a job they enjoy?
And by enjoy, I mean that they feel intellectually challenged (in a good way), like the culture, are happy with the other people at the organization and are adequately remunerated.
If anyone loves working at any organization (and have no domestic reason to leave) – they will stay. You are delusional if you think otherwise.
But all too often, I hear blinkered managers at organizations with high staff turnover say things like:
young people don’t understand how this organization works, and what they need to do if they want to succeed here.
These managers have already failed. Employees will work harder when they know what their role is, what they need to do to be considered ‘outstanding,’ have the time and resources to be ‘outstanding,’ and understand where they consider themselves to be three, five or ten years from now.
This article does not go on to explain why millennials appear to demand more things from their employers. But the fact of the matter is that people do not leave jobs, organizations and cultures if they don’t want to.
So if your organization routinely complains about how young people readily leave (and laments the amount of money and resources invested in developing these temporary residents of your company), I will bet a substantial amount of money that your organization is one of the following types.
Organization 1 –The one where ‘I’ll tell you if you did what I wanted after you have done it.’
This organization is listed first for a reason … everyone knows a boss who could never tell you what they wanted at the start of a project or task. But these same bosses were only too happy to tell you if they were not happy with what you did after it was done – in the absence of clear initial guidance.
There are thousands of variations to this theme. There is the boss who says nothing ‘bad’ to you when they review your work. They then present your work to their boss or a client. And after they do, they will blame you if it is not well received. You try to say ‘hay – you reviewed it and thought it was OK!’ But the boss focuses on how it is not their job to ‘babysit’ or (insert next generic excuse here).
There are some instances where bosses deliberately limit guidance to subordinates if they are trying to teach them to be comfortable thinking for themselves. But there comes a point where bosses must interpret what is needed and what they want from those who work for them – that is a key part of their job!
Many bosses can’t do this. Some see their role as one of seniority versus true leadership. Others are lazy. And others are insecure about being challenged by their subordinates when they try and dissect a task at hand. They risk showing their own incompetence or lack of grasp of the situation. So they walk away and don’t say anything until they see something to review.
And then these people who can’t tell you what they like, have no problem in telling you what they don’t like. In the most extreme cases, they feel they must criticize just so they can convince themselves that they were an integral piece of the process.
Why are these bosses in positions of authority in the first place? Who looked at their performance and were impressed enough to promote them?
If your organization has one boss like this, chances are there are many others. Why would a young employee hang around? The smarter the young employee, the more quickly they will realize how organizationally incompetent you and your management team are. And you will be left with the dullards who don’t get it – or the dullards who don’t have options anywhere else. These are not the people you want to stay, and quickly become your ‘inadequate’ bosses of tomorrow. A never-ending cycle of successive generations of dullards is born.
Organization 2 – Welcome to our ‘leadership queue’.
In this organization, people are considered for internal promotion primarily on how long they have been there. Membership and conformity is valued over competence and innovation. This is a weird form of nepotism, like a perverse form of the reality TV show ‘Survivor.’
Millennials will quickly realize that it doesn’t matter how good, smart or competent they are. The smartest and brightest employees will have a competitive advantage in other organizations that value smartness and brightness. And (again) because they are smart and bright, they will realize this before you do. They will quickly realize they are disadvantaged by staying with your organization – and why would anyone stay where they feel disadvantaged?
Experience matters, so it is up to managers and leaders to identify young talent and expose them to different roles as quickly as possible. But if your organization rewards those who have been there the longest, not working hard becomes the rational thing to do. It takes less energy, and there is no point in trying to excel.
Soon you will have a group of mediocrity, with no one doing anything ‘exceptional.’ And so you are left with questions and perhaps anger, as those left behind continue to accrue time on their ‘sentence’ hoping for the sweet taste of parole that is promotion. And what culture do you think those few people who have decided to stay will perpetuate? Your organization is now a sea of dullards (get the theme?)
Organization 3 – Your turn!
Say you are told you must do something which makes no sense. This thing is a clear waste of time, or it is not the best way of solving a problem. But when you say there is a better way, your boss shrugs their shoulders and says:
well everyone else had to do that when they were in your position.
What this means is your management team had to suffer these ordeals many years ago when they were the young employees of that organization. They once had to do tedious tasks, complete perhaps unnecessary personal errands for their supervisors, work extra hard to accommodate a breakdown in planning and cohesion, or simply work all hours of the day and night to get what was assigned to them done.
Who would want to stay in a place like that? The uninspiring boss who just shrugged his or her shoulder is that person – and is now reverting to the only management style they know. Just shut up and do it.
Do you think there is hope for spontaneous cultural change? Hell no. Ordeals these bosses had to endure were once their former boss’s shortcomings. If today’s bosses had options elsewhere, they probably would have left. But they didn’t leave. They suffered ordeal after ordeal, until attrition saw them the only ones left behind. The ones who can’t lead, schedule or plan. And why? Because they expect their subordinates to suffer the same ordeals in lieu of them being a good boss.
These bosses now think this ordeal-centric approach to management is ‘fair.’ They had to endure these things – so it is not unfair to expect subordinates to endure them as well. And they are likely surrounded by other people who have the same opinion. And all a crazy idea needs to survive is an echo chamber of complicity.
Now we have an inefficient organization that is staffed by long term employees who have no options elsewhere, and short term (more competent) employees who cannot wait to leave. The dullards will take over … it is just a matter of time.
Organization 4 – We are the best at what we do … just don’t ask us what that is.
There are plenty of organizations that are building a ‘great’ device or system – but the management team have internally competing ideas of what that thing might be from the perspective of the customer.
With technology moving as fast as it is, the same device could conceivably be sold, leased or operated by the company that built it – particularly if that device produces valuable data. Or perhaps the device could be a ‘backbone’ that allows specific components or devices of other organizations to be installed and operated on it.
It is not uncommon for managers of an organization to not agree on how their device should be sold to the customer. One manager might favor selling the entire device. Another manager might favor keeping the device and selling its outputs. Another may favor leasing it.
And it is also not uncommon for these differences to go unresolved. Perhaps because there is no single leader in the organization, and a consensus driven approach never resolves the discrepancy. These companies may be led by inexperienced entrepreneurs with minimal leadership skills. Or perhaps when there is a single leader, they are not strong enough to fix the situation.
And what does this mean? A broken business plan among other things (if there is no agreement on what you are selling, how can there be any agreement on how to make money?). But from a young employee’s perspective, you now have multiple bosses and people to report to. People need to decide who to keep ‘most happy.’ It is impossible to keep every manager happy when they all want different things. Perhaps the most charismatic or strongest willed manager will ‘win.’ This marginalizes the others, and before long you have a breakaway startup that is now a competitor, potentially taking a good deal of your talent with them.
And this will ultimately cause stress, confusion and employees feeling like they aren’t valued when they keep being told what they are doing is wrong, and to change it to another paradigm.
Organization 5 – Well here is a crisis … better send out a search party for the boss.
Leaders really earn their pay when dealing with issues, problems and challenges. There are times when a boss’s experience, inter-personal skills and everything else associated with being a leader is needed in a time-sensitive, high-intensity environment. These times are when the ‘crises’ or ‘spot fires’ are running rampant.
But there are plenty of bosses who are impossible to find when the going gets tough. And this is particularly frustrating to employees who are forced to deal with these catastrophes within a leadership vacuum. They feel devalued. Why are they subordinate to (and most likely getting paid less than) the boss who is now impossible to find?
Sometimes bosses go missing for other reasons. Avoiding or delaying decisions can have severe ramifications for subordinates. If a boss has all the information they are ever going to have about an issue, there is absolutely no need to delay making a decision. Especially if this decision is hard or ‘bad.’
There is an adage that ‘bad news does not get better with age.’ And what that means for a boss who struggles to make quick decisions is that the time afforded to subordinates to do their job rapidly disappears when they dither over making a decision. And if the decision involves delivering bad news, giving people as much time to deal with a difficult situation is a good thing.
There are plenty of examples of bosses who are become paralyzed by the decision-making process and require the ‘shear terror’ of an immediate deadline to do something productive. That is, everything gets done in the last 48 hours. Painfully.
Young (and old) employees hate this – because it impacts on their ability to do a good job, their time, and the feeling that they matter. And if they can make decisions or solve problems their bosses can’t … they will (rightfully) find an organization that values their skills. And chances are it isn’t yours, because you promoted the ‘Harry Houdini’ who only reappears once the crisis has been resolved.
Organization 6 – Our [… insert choice of marketing, field service, finance] team is also our biggest team.
Don’t tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I’ll tell you what they are.
This was said by James W. Frick, who was the first full time ‘fundraiser’ for the University of Notre Dame. He is venerated to this day by his alma mater due to the amount of funds he was able to raise. Highly passionate, articulate and intelligent, he paved a path for many across the world to follow.
And his quote is as true today as it has ever been. Whether it be for personal or commercial finances, people spend money based on what they prioritize.
Many consultants can tell you about ‘that one company’ that asked them to improve quality, reliability or anything else without incurring any additional costs. This is crazy. And then there are organizations that have massive field service departments – because there are so many field failures. Which means that this organization prioritizes fixing failures over preventing them.
Joseph Juran (who is kind of a big deal when it comes to quality and reliability) talked about ‘exhortation.’ This is what management teams do when they want to feel like they are prioritizing something without prioritizing it. They may say things like ‘quality is our number one goal’ or ‘reliability is what we do.’ But only pay bonuses when the product is shipped on time. Eventually, quality and reliability will revert to a level of zero priority. Why? Because focusing on quality and reliability (in this example) makes it less likely for something to ship on time. Which is where the money goes.
So what does your organization prioritize? Don’t think – just look at what it spends money on. And no matter what you say to your workforce, millennials will probably realize what you (the management team) prioritize before you know it yourself. It had better align with the sort of organization you want the talent to aspire to. And if it doesn’t, then think about the people it would attract. And sooner rather than later, they will be there.
Organization 7 – Do as I say, not as I do (… psychopath-lite).
When you think of a psychopath, you probably imagine a serial killer or some other sort of criminal. There is a growing body of evidence that psychopaths initially do well in organizations before ultimately causing irreversible harm. Professor Clive Boddy writes in his book Corporate Psychopaths: Organizational Destroyers that these ‘corporate psychopaths’ leave organizations with cultures of bullying, conflict, stress, staff turnover and absenteeism, reduction in productivity and diminished social responsibility.
Does this sound familiar?
Among other things, psychopaths are good at mimicking emotions (pretending to be someone they are not) and have little empathy. This sees them uniquely set up to be whatever their boss wants them to be, and to think nothing of using their subordinates as mere resources – not people with emotions who are valuable to the organization and need to be nurtured.
So regardless of the way you want to look at it, those people who are charming to those above them but abusive to those below them have psychopathic tendencies. And this never ends well – particularly if their charm earns them promotion.
There is a continuum of corporate psychopathy to be sure … but perhaps the first inkling that this may be an issue in your organization is when there is someone who is ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ That is, they demand their subordinates to things they were never prepared to do themselves. This can be things as basic as office etiquette, or something more sinister that involves lying or misappropriation of funds.
And ‘not knowing’ about this behavior is not an excuse for upper level management. Knowing is their job. Turning a blind eye or not looking hard enough is not.
Do you think a young employee will want to stay in an organization with a culture of bullying, conflict, stress, staff turnover and absenteeism, reduction in productivity and diminished social responsibility?
Organization 8 – Do it any way you want, as long as it is my way.
Micro-managers tend to be blissfully unaware of their condition. When you micromanage, you tell your subordinates:
You don’t matter.
The best and the brightest will start wondering why they are here at all if they are simply doing everything precisely the way their boss says to do it. This is painful. And the only people who enjoy this situation are the dullards who have no idea about how to do it. Dullards need prescriptive guidance. So they are happy(ish), and will remain happy(ish) once the high performers have left.
You will soon have a workforce that is conditioned to not take the initiative when they need to. During the Piper Alpha Oil Platform fire in 1988 (which killed 167 people), staff on adjacent platforms continued to pump oil to the raging inferno even though they could see the flames rising over the horizon. Why didn’t they turn the oil supply off to the fatal inferno? They didn’t think they had the authority to do it.
There is always an unhappy marriage between the (micro-manager) boss and the (dullard) workforce. The (micro-manager) boss becomes convinced that they must ‘do everything’ because their workforce is full of dullards. This marriage is now ‘divorce-proof’ as we have an unhealthy form of co-dependence. The dysfunctional party always needs the other.
So why do this? Some bosses just feel good by being part of the process. Others cannot tolerate errors or mistakes at the lowest levels. But without errors or mistakes, no one ever learns or makes risk-based decisions. This is bad all around.
And so what?
There are other organizations I could have included here, but hopefully you get the point. And there is one thing all these organizations have in common: denial. It is very hard for management teams (who have no doubt expended substantial blood sweat and tears for that organization) to critically look at themselves and genuinely identify if any of the organizations described above is like their own.
But if you are scratching your head, wondering why millennials quickly leave your organization, you need to drink a large glass of humility. It is almost certainly your organization that is at fault. And if you think that these millennials don’t get it, then you may feel a bit better about your predicament which is a common by-product of kidding oneself. But at the end of the day, you will be left with a low-performance workforce that only stay with you because they aren’t talented enough to pursue any other option. Get used to dealing with dullards.
There are plenty of organizations that get this. Google is famous for making its workplace accommodating for its staff. I recently went on a tour of Riot Games headquarters in Los Angeles. I didn’t want to leave! It had its own relaxation rooms, bars, food hall, exercise areas, free parking (and the list goes on). All these things were tremendously expensive (they were built in the converted Fox Studios). But they can attract and keep young talent. Isn’t that what you want to do? (Riot Games’ League of Legends games earns approximately $ 2 billion annually, several times that of its nearest competitor).
So always ask yourself: what would make me want to stay ‘here’? What can I do to make this a desirable place to work? Alternately you can micromanage, berate, devalue, be a psychopath or whatever it is you do that will forever hold your organization back. Blaming ‘millennials’ is your delusional security blanket.