C-suiters, meet the millennials. Young, highly educated employees born in the dawn of the digital age can seem a strange breed, but the future of your company depends on understanding and using them. Millennials could be the C-suite’s secret weapon for innovation. Many millennials tend to have an entrepreneurial bias for action. They disdain bureaucracy, mistrust large organizations, and are skeptical about authority.
Experience still matters, but not the kind where old hands squelch millennials’ sense of possibility. Experienced leaders reach millennials through coaching and dialogue, like the “adult supervision” Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin sought in making veteran Eric Schmidt their chief executive; he eventually relinquished the chief executive title to Page and remains executive chairman. Millennials respect intellect and achievement, even when they refuse unquestioning obedience to authority.
Let’s not overdo the contrast. Millennials are a younger generation, not another species. Video-game-playing, gig-economy-freelancing 22-year-olds turn into 32-year-old dads who like steady paychecks and restrict their children’s screen time. Moreover, I’m struck by how much millennials have in common with the baby boomers who now occupy the C-suite. When they were the rising generation, baby boomers didn’t believe in large institutions. They protested wars, went back to the land, joined the Peace Corps, and brought a sense of entitlement to workplaces.
For C-suiters to attract, motivate and retain millennial talent, they should know how to learn from their fresh ideas. It is called reverse mentoring. At one point, Cisco CEO John Chambers made sure there were teenagers working in his office.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, as the old saying goes. Chiefs can remember their own youthful pasts and desires, and start to think like millennials. In times of dramatic change, the future belongs to those who learn.