Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
January 28, 2019

It's a Candidate's Market Part 6: Millennials Have Disrupted More Than Our Diets

Millennials are the first generation to teach their parents how to eat and cook. Up until the turn of the century, generation after generation adapted what they prepared and ate as their family’s economic and social circumstances evolved. Recipes, likes and dislikes were handed down from parent to child. With technological and economic progress, close-to-home fresh and balanced diets gave way to processed, convenient and imbalanced diets. 

I have a dear friend who is a renowned cookbook author whose epiphany came when she was going through volumes of family photos and noticed how her humble family had evolved over generations. Through photos of similar settings – holidays, picnics, family events – she observed how the size and scale of the adults had expanded from decade to decade. And she inspected the food on the tables in the pictures: Fresh, home-grown vegetables, proteins and grains gave way to platters full of traditional, made-from-scratch fried Southern fare complemented by fat- and sugar-rich casseroles with boxed ingredients. Meals increasingly became a super-sized processed food fest. The shift was subtle over time, but stark in Kodachrome. 

Then one day, millennials looked around, read a label or two, probed the internet and crowd-shared nutrition insights and chose to think differently. When offered a plate full of processed carbs and liquid high-fructose corn syrup, they said, “No thanks.” It wasn’t long before they were mixing up a kale salad and suggesting to their parents, “Hey folks, try this.”

How does this equate to attracting and hiring great talent today? Well, millennials also have some expectations about what they want from the company they work for. And just like our diets, they are teaching their bosses about what really matters to high-performing enterprises. They don’t have to work for Google or Facebook, or even a tech company. They do want to work for a company that meets their definition of “cool.” 

“Cool” is where culture and purpose are preeminent, and the company and their brands/products are the heroes. They do not want to work in a CPG environment where the company and brands behave like victims. Too many of our CPG sisters and brothers view their brands as old and tired, mired in Baby Boomer product formulation, tin-eared package forms, and self-defeating positionings. Could our hiring brands have similar challenges?

In my reading on the topic (Gallup’s How Millennials Want to Work and Live is a great starting point, but there is a ton of literature on this topic), some “must-haves” emerge: 

  • Flexibility/ways of working – These are not perquisites, they are requirements. If you are strapping your talent to their desks, cube farms or even campus, you don’t get it. And as one executive shared, “If you can’t trust your talent to work from home, why did you hire them in the first place?” 
  • Personal development – Learning and growth are essential ingredients, and millennials are hungry for feedback. If they do not receive these, they will find “food” elsewhere. And this feedback loop needs to happen with the same quick pace that they communicate in their everyday lives  – a real-time, ongoing, Twitter-like feed of development.
  • A sensei – Millennials have little interest in being managed. They have a ton of interest in being challenged, engaged and respected — and they are keenly interested in your wisdom. Offering wisdom is hard for my generation. Not simply because we may not have it, but we are really uncomfortable: Sharing wisdom can feel too forward, too loud, too risky in a professional relationship. However, it can be delivered with humility and humor, and is appreciated more often than not.
  • Building on assets – Leadership needs to condition and unleash individual and team strengths. Soft spots need not be ignored, but building environments that allow and help people to be at their best tend to attract and retain the best. 
  • Purpose – Compensation matters, and being fair is essential.  However, comp is not a primary driver. Mission and purpose trump income.  
  • Redefinition of “career” – Careers are an exercise in collecting experiences and relationships, not scaling a ladder.  Therefore, retention is harder and attracting them requires we treat them like consumers.
  • Inspiration – Some things don’t change, but their implications do. Millennials want to be inspired as we all do, but this generation is encouraged differently. Inspiration is informed by what they value: engagement, learning, time, balance, mentoring, transparency, humility, space to grow, are but a few areas of focus. 

So, how do we think we are doing? 

In Part 7, we offer perspectives to candidates as they navigate this market.


Art Brown is a member of Spencer Stuart's Board, CEO, Consumer, Private Equity, and Marketing and Sales Officer practices. He concentrates on the consumer sector, advising on talent and leadership. Reach him via email and follow him on LinkedIn.