Millennial misunderstanding: the looming talent crisis

Written by
Changeboard Team

03 Sep 2015

03 Sep 2015 • by Changeboard Team

The UK is in the midst of a talent crisis and HR leaders need to work harder to shape the workforce of the future, with inspirational leadership, job purpose and flexibility all vital to understanding the new face of work.

This was the theme of a Changeboard roundtable in November in association with SuccessFactors, an SAP company, held under the Chatham House Rule. 

Keynote speaker Colin Hatfield, senior partner at Visible Leaders, began by examining SuccessFactors’ recent survey – Workforce 2020 – of 2,718 executives and 2,872 employees, who gave their views on their companies’ readiness for the changing landscape. Hatfield broke the report down into three distinct areas: encouraging, unexpected and frightening.

Encouragement for HR executives comes in the form of planning, with 56% saying their company had an execution plan for achieving workforce management and 68% saying their leadership teams have the skills to effectively manage talent.

However, the report also revealed that HR struggles to understand the next generation of workers, often relying on stereotypes, according to Hatfield. This led to a series of unexpected facts about Generation Y expectations. 

For example, while Millennials are often criticised for choosing quality of life over career progression, the survey discovered only 42% would do so, which is compared with 54% of non-Millennials.

Nearly half of executives (45%) believe Millennials are frustrated with manager quality, but just 8% actually are, and 46% think a lack of leadership and development causes Millennials to leave jobs, but only 18% of Millennials agree.

From Hatfield’s point of view, this means both that “perception and reality are polarised” when it comes to the subject of future talent, and that HR needs to better understand what Millennials can bring to the business world.

According to one HR director at the table: “Younger generations of workers drive new ways of working, particularly when it comes to technology and people skills. They help us in ways we would never have imagined.”

He had an anecdote about a colleague who wanted to test a potential management pipeline employee by challenging them to decide if a new initiative would benefit the business.

Expecting a drawn-out presentation, his colleague was surprised when the employee returned an hour later and revealed he posted the idea on Twitter and that several thousand people had thought it a good idea, so he recommended proceeding with it.

Redefining leadership

The group moved on to discuss the next generation of leadership, agreeing that Millennials – while great at thought leadership – need values and boundaries setting if business is to make the most of their abilities. Few participants believed that leadership was ready to take on this challenge.

A common thought among participants was that globalisation stretches leadership, pushing it into short-term thinking. This causes a debilitating effect on leadership capabilities, which become focused on expansion rather than promoting from within. 
Consequently, there isn’t enough of a focus on developing middle management skills to allow them to become leaders, to the detriment of the individual and business. Hatfield warned the UK could soon have more than 150,000 new managers without adequate training. The group then looked at what made certain leaders inspiring. They agreed top-down leadership is often highly motivational, but this impetus can struggle to filter through management structures.

“Good leaders should make you feel inspired in your job and want you to achieve goals, which is what people like Richard Branson do. But should you expect the head of finance to inspire the same effect? Do they even need to?” asked one leader.

“Our leader is massively inspirational,” countered another participant.“Part of the challenge is business sees leadership as a persona, not a trait.

“However, our team leaders aren’t like our owner or Richard Branson, so we evolved our employee engagement questionnaire from ‘is my boss inspirational?’ to ‘would I want to work for my team leader?’ “We found this gave a better insight into how our leaders are viewed,” she added.

The theme of encouraging the leadership ability of middle management was echoed by a third participant, who said business should repersonalise leadership by empowering line leaders: “Leaders need to listen to their employees for inspiration.

“We’re going through a period of change, but instead of our executives saying ‘this is what we’re going to do’, we’ve launched listening groups instead. This has brought fresh ideas and improved collaboration, which is what Millennials want.

Engagement vs reward for Generation Y

While the group agreed that strong values, incorporating principles that everyone from the C-suite down live by, were vital in attracting Millennials, one delegate argued against the danger of gaining good engagement but risking poor performance.

“My organisation has wanted to over deliver to the customer to the detriment of money. 

“Our challenge is that the things that we score high on with engagement – creativity and energy – are more about the design aspect of our work than the commercial, so our employees have lost sight of the financial angle and we’re losing out commercially. So, we’ve got high engagement, but low performance,” the attendee said.

“However, Millennials will drag us forward. They will be a game-changer for us. They will demand a different way of working and living, but if we can provide this, I’m sure we’ll grow,” she added.

Collaborating with entrepreneurial Millennials

All attendees agreed that Millennials will be vital in driving change in working habits, from portfolio working to technological advances. Millennials have an entrepreneurial spirit, and will challenge existing leadership models. However, according to the group, the key to leading the next generation isn’t motivational top-down leadership from C-suite executives such as Richard Branson, but rather from collaborative work with middle managers who embody the values of their organisations and can energise Millennials.

How do you achieve this? By having personalised values that are lived through – and created by – you  organisation. As one attendee summed up: “Connecting with a purpose is vital not just for Millennials, but all employees from the top down. “People cannot perform their role if they can’t connect with a purpose.”