Millennial Ambition Pummels Objectivity

Recently, an unexpected candidate surprised me while I was whittling my list of national talent down to a few white-hot General Manager / President (GM) prospects.

At 30, “Dave” had already compiled an impressive array of accomplishment, including the successful management of a retail team of 30. Generally, I advocate for high-potential talent growing into roles beyond their experience. In fact, there is evidence Millennials (aka ‘Gen Y’) are more equipped for success than previous generations.

In this case, however, the risks associated with promoting Dave outweighed his ambition and qualifications. Having only been with the organization for one year, Dave’s breadth and depth of experience didn’t satisfy the board’s requirements for their new GM role.

I gently told Dave that he had great potential, but that his experience was not competitive in this candidate pool; the board wanted a seasoned executive with a proven track record, trusted experience, and a strong vision to take the small entrepreneurial company to the next level. A stretch assignment, I told him, was not appropriate for the role.

It seemed logical to me, but Dave disagreed. He met each of my arguments with calm, strong pushback.

What interests me most here: Dave’s resistance to recognizing his shortcomings in light of more veteran candidates. It made me wonder how this very large, confident generation will change the dynamics of talent acquisition, development, and retention as they gain experience and elevate their game. Trends suggest that Millennials are more strategic and proactive about clambering up the corporate ladder.

Ready or Impatient? Motivated or Unrealistic?

According to Nick Shore, SVP of Strategic Consumer Insights and Research at MTV, “Millennials are not just a more voluminous generation than Boomers, but better educated, more self-esteemed, more demanding, more technologically savvy, more empowered and wired to win at the game of life.” As this generation climbs the corporate ladder, their expectations and abilities are sure to reshape the organizations they aspire to lead.

To some, the Millennials’ ambition may seem unrealistic and impatient. Cali Williams Yost counters, “Millennials watched the concept of work and career change fundamentally.” Their aspirations are simply the product of the market from which they emerged. ‘Unrealistic’ may be an unfair label. The rules of employment have changed, so Millennial behavior and expectations are shifting, too.

Shifting, indeed. Pew Research articulates this group’s mercurial tendencies; “Members of this generation are far more likely than members of others to say they will one day be working for someone other than their current employers. Nearly six-in-ten younger workers (57%) say it is not very likely or not likely at all that they will stay with their current employers for the remainder of their working lives. Among Gen X workers, those numbers are virtually reversed: A 62% majority say it’s likely they will never leave their current employers.” With a well-earned reputation for job-hopping, what are we to make of this generation as it enters the executive echelons?

A lesson in patience or flexibility?

Ultimately, Dave was not considered for the CEO position. He was commended for his ambition and drive, but told that he needed more experience. His story makes me wonder about this generation of executives. How many will accept the exhortation to be patient, and how many will react with a new job search?

How can we accommodate the Millennial’s ambition while retaining them over the long term?

To retain this talent and help them grow into their aspirations, I suggest:

Structure for choice.

Consider your organization in terms of career paths. Create logical job ladders and rotations to foster broad and deep expertise. Think in terms of projects, initiatives, and stretch-assignments. Would a formal mentoring process add value?

Leverage their taste for speed.

This generation likes to learn and grow. A shorter promotion cycle, coupled with more frequent, smaller steps doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, and could satisfy their lust for variety.

Allow room for failure.

Identify opportunities for pressure-testing high-potential Millennials. Single out individuals for special programs. Don’t coddle; let them experience what it means to take it up a notch. Follow Wieden + Kennedy’s advice for fostering creativity and testing potential quickly; Fail Harder.

Understand what they want.

Tie performance incentives to their motivations (e.g. more money, time off, etc.) Regularly talk to your employees to make sure they feel engaged, supported, and challenged.

Spend your breath, not a fortune.

Appreciation need not cost much money. Provide regular constructive feedback and positive reinforcement. Say thanks. Have fun. Communicate often.

What’s your experience?

What have you learned about hiring, managing, and retaining ambitious Millennials? Share your experiences below in the comments section.