Two themes for companies to keep Millennial workers engaged

While it’s difficult to paint an entire generation in general terms, older managers in the workplace admittedly face obstacles in guiding Millennials. The group also known as Generation Y grew up with cell phones in their hands and Wi-Fi on every corner. They’re accustomed to immediate, regular conversation, even if that feedback is by text message.

And, Columbia University professor Rita McGrath said, Millennials aren’t buying into company loyalty the way the Baby Boomer generation did.

“This Millennial generation [has] seen what companies do to their people,” McGrath said recently at a forum hosted by the Maryland Association of CPAs’ Business Learning Institute. “They are under no illusions that you being loyal to the company is going to mean the company being loyal to you.”

So, some business leaders wondered, how do you keep a potentially restless segment of the workforce engaged, loyal and motivated?

“What you have to do,” McGrath said, “is compellingly give them a picture of how staying with you is going to make them more valuable, more employable when they’re done or more employable when they reach the next stage, than they are right now.”

Research shows that Millennials, generally defined as those born from the early 1980s to around the turn of the millennium, believe strongly in the value of meaningful work. If the work is not exciting, then employees will look elsewhere. A survey by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, which included 4,300 Generation Y finance professionals from 85 countries, shows that a strong majority of them (78%) expect to look for another job within two years.

In searching for work, cash is still king – 69% of respondents ranked financial rewards as the most important aspect of a job offer. That was followed by challenging and interesting work (57%) and training and career development (55%) – well ahead of benefits (34%).

In a survey conducted by EY, Baby Boomers labelled benefits as far more important than Millennials did, and Millennials gave more weight to flexible work arrangements than Baby Boomers.

A panel of business leaders at the Business Learning Institute forum spoke of hurdles they’ve faced with Millennials. Carol Calandra, CPA, CGMA, the group CFO of markets at EY, said she has heard about parents calling on behalf of their college-age offspring, trying to negotiate job offers. Angela L. Avant, CPA, the CEO of the National Association of Black Accountants, said some Millennials have an expectation of plenty of pay and responsibility before they’ve demonstrated they can perform.

Building skills, branching out

McGrath said two themes should emerge when properly developing and retaining Millennial workers: Giving them room to develop their skills and time to build their network.

Top-notch Millennials in particular think of their career as a series of “gigs,” McGrath said. Some hiring managers would label regular moves in short succession as job-hopping, but, for Millennials in particular, the moves have a purpose.

McGrath is the author of four books, including The End of Competitive Advantage: How to Keep Your Strategy Moving as Fast as Your Business. She said a bank executive recently heard her speak and decided he had looked at younger candidates’ CVs the wrong way. The executive would see six to eight stops and wonder about the prospective employee: “Can’t you hold a job?”

He came to realise that candidates were building valuable skills but doing so across multiple organisations.

McGrath, who has spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and was recently named by Thinkers50 as the world’s sixth-most influential business thinker, said Millennials in particular rely on a network more than their employer for guidance. That’s why, for instance, a Millennial might see a conference as a critical event – it’s a chance to connect with others, share ideas and grow the knowledge base.

“They’ve learned that those networks will be there for them more than any particular company,” said McGrath, who includes “entrepreneurial career management” as one of six elements in the new strategy playbook for companies and individuals.

Motivation, rewards: Generation-neutral?

Changes in technology have given workers of all ages, not just Millennials, the ability to build larger networks, said Byron K. Patrick, CPA/CITP, CGMA, who attended the forum. He counts himself as a member of Generation X (in general, those born between the mid-1960s to early 1980s) and said his network stretches across North America. Patrick is CEO of Maryland-based Simplified Innovations, which provides IT solutions to finance professionals.

“My closest friends, colleagues, advisers and mentors are in Hawaii, Rhode Island, Minnesota, North Carolina,” he said. “They’re the people I go to. Technology extends your reach, and I think it’s extremely powerful.”

He believes the concept of employee engagement should be generation-neutral.

“The reward might be different, but the concepts of motivation and reward are consistent across generations,” he said. “It just might be that now the reward might be flex-time. … I don’t think it should be a separate conversation. There are a lot of 50-somethings who would appreciate the same motivations and rewards that 20-somethings would want. It should be more a conversation about creative or innovative ways to motivate staff.”

One such creative way is remote or anonymous mentoring for Millennials, McGrath said. In this model, a batch of younger workers is assigned to an older mentor, possibly one who is part-time or retired. The relationship is online and anonymous, meaning the employee doesn’t have to worry about impressing the mentor and can be honest. Likewise, the mentor can deliver feedback about, say, the worker’s slide presentation or proposal.

“It takes politics … out of the equation and lets (Millennials) focus on what they need to do to get better,” she said.

Networking’s link to innovation

Tom Hood, CPA/CITP, CGMA, said his experience mentoring young finance professionals shows that Millennials feel held back from in-person networking efforts by their employers. “They’re so busy at work, [the companies] are not letting them out to do that networking,” said Hood, CEO of the Maryland Association of CPAs, which founded the Business Learning Institute. “As employers, we should think about how we can get our people connected, because what they’re saying is they come back with great ideas. That generates innovation.”

And, although it might sound basic, listening can go a long way for companies. “A lot of times, what (Millennials are) looking for can be simple things,” McGrath said. “ ‘Can I use my iPhone at work?’ ‘Can I take this trip to New York?’ It’s about what they’re trying to achieve, and it can be tough. They’re not patient, and the better ones – they’re not going to stick around.”

Related CGMA Magazine content:

Companies Invest in Employee Training to Reduce Global Skills Gap’s Effects”: Spending on employee learning and development is rising as companies attempt to hire and train new workers and leaders alike to combat a global skills gap, according to research. Read about some of the best practices in L&D, as well as mistakes to avoid.

Younger Management, Older Workers and How Companies Can Adapt”: Globally, talent management has increasingly begun to include overseeing multigenerational teams as older workers stay on the job longer.

Neil Amato ( is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.