On Shoulders of Giants: Lessons from Boomers on Developing Your Millennial Workforce On Shoulders of Giants: Lessons from Boomers on Developing Your Millennial Workforce

On Shoulders of Giants: Lessons from Boomers on Developing Your Millennial Workforce

If hysterical blog titles are any guide, the challenges associated with incorporating workers from the Millennial generation (born between 1980 and 1996) into the modern workplace rank somewhere between the impact of climate change and the all-too-real trauma of male pattern baldness in a listing of the great trials of our age. (See author’s picture.)

An internet search using my favorite search engine turns up over 781,000 results for "problems with millennials in the workplace" and 13.6 million hits for "the problem with millennials" more generally. A representative view expressed in these articles describes millennials as "lazy, entitled, narcissistic job-hoppers," which would not be such a problem if there were not 73 million of them in the United States alone.

"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here" makes for a fantastic pirate's slogan, but not much of a strategy for developing the next generation of talent to lead our organizations. It also neglects the very real strengths of the millennials, including a desire to make a difference in the world. Fortunately, a better strategy has been identified by the folks at Gallup, Inc. in their report published June 30, 2016, "How Millennials Want to Work and Live.”

The most significant finding from this report is that 87% of millennials rate "professional or career growth and development opportunities" as key to their engagement and job satisfaction, which is markedly higher than by previous generations. Gallup found that, in contrast to the stereotypical views expressed about their character, millennials are less motivated by compensation, titles, and other perks, and more motivated by managers committed to help them learn and grow.

If the key to engaging millennials is development, the next critical question becomes "how?" The answer to this question perhaps can be found in Sir Isaac Newton's observation that, "if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants," referring to those scientists who came before him whose contributions made his own accomplishments possible.

The wisdom of Newton's statement and its application to the development of millennials was brought home for me by recent events involving two giants in the field of labor and employment law who were instrumental in my own development: Mike Boldt and Susan Tabler.

Mike Boldt, who has long been the "Dean" of traditional labor lawyers in the State of Indiana in my estimation, retired from our Firm this past week after 41 years of practicing law at the highest levels. Mike was known for many things – his intellect, steadiness, encyclopedic knowledge of the law, and "Rain Man"-like facility with numbers – but his defining characteristic for me was his sense of calm in a practice that often invited chaos. He personified the role of lawyer as counselor who used the characteristics of wisdom, patience, and calm judgment to represent the best interests of his clients. Along the way, he developed a national reputation in traditional labor law and engendered the confidence of a loyal cadre of clients who hired him to represent their interests throughout the United States.

Patience and calm judgment are not necessarily the characteristics I would use to describe another legal giant and former colleague, Susan Tabler, who passed away on May 29, 2016. Susan possessed a fierce intellect, a powerful pen, and a warrior's spirit in representing clients in courtrooms across the State of Indiana. The fact that she did so at a time when female lawyers were a rarity and female litigators rarer still is part of her legacy and paved the way for many other successful women at our firm and other firms in Indiana. Susan's legacy to me, however, was less about how she acted as a trailblazer and more about how she exemplified the role of lawyer as advocate, who represented her clients without fear, hesitation, or apology. (Side note: she is the only lawyer I have ever seen –male or femalereduce a seasoned opponent to tears in a courtroom, but that's a story for another day).

Reminiscing aside, what lessons do the examples of these two legal giants from the Boomer generation have to teach employers interested in meeting the need of the Millennial generation for development? Simply this: the most successful and engaged performers in any organization are those who are encouraged to develop and work out of their natural strengths, like Mike and Susan. As intelligent and determined as they were, I have no doubt they could have played each other's role well, with Mike becoming an effective trial lawyer and Susan a successful labor negotiator. However, they became legal giants by focusing on their own natural strengths and using them as fuel for their extraordinary careers.
Drawing from their examples, employers who wish to engage and develop their millennial workers to their full potential should identify, coach, and deploy their natural strengths:
  • Identify: Individuals in the Millennial generation are no more fungible than those in previous ones, but instead come hard-wired with specific talents and abilities. Employers that wish to meet their desires for professional development should begin by determining what their individual strengths are either through formal assessments or careful observation.
  • Coach: According to Gallup, millennials respond best to managers who act as coaches focused on developing their strengths and abilities, rather than evaluators harping on their weaknesses. Development and remediation are different things. To get the most out of their millennial workers, managers should be intentional about developing the particular strengths of each member of their teams and not just raising up their weaknesses to an acceptable level.
  • Deploy: The most effective managers understand that individual performers will thrive when put in a position to do what they do best, like Mike and Susan. Cross-training and providing employees with opportunities to acquire new skills are important; however, the reality is that the most engaged, productive, and satisfied employees are those whose managers deploy them to use their particular strengths to advance the team’s objectives.
One additional lesson I learned from the giants who came before me is that happy employees rarely sue their employers or look to bring in an outside labor union to represent them. Millennials are no different in that respect, but simply find their happiness in different ways than previous generations. By meeting the needs of millennial employees to develop and utilize their strengths, employers not only will build a better, more productive workplace, but they also just might create a less litigious one, too.

For more information on labor and employment law, contact Michael Tooley or another member of our Labor, Employment and Immigration group.

This publication is intended for general information purposes only and does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice. The reader should consult with legal counsel to determine how laws or decisions discussed herein apply to the reader’s specific circumstances.
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