The economic uncertainty of the past few years has meant that for many businesses, it’s been a time to batten down the hatches and focus on cutting costs and sharpening product or service offerings in a bid to weather the storm.  As we emerge chrysalis-like from the economic doldrums – and into what we all hope is a sustained period of confidence and growth – it has become apparent that  many business leaders have taken their eyes  off the prize in terms of the one competency that can make or break their organisation’s success – their talent.  Sourcing the right talent is not even half the story it is engaging talent that should be the Holy Grail for any business.  Not only are engaged employees more innovative, they’re more likely to want to stay with their employer, which means reduced costs in terms of staff turnover.  This is more pertinent now, given that in many sectors career opportunities are virtually being offered on a plate to tempt the very best talent you have away to pastures new.   

So, how can businesses ensure that their key employees are happy, productive and above all, in it for the long run?  One approach – and perhaps one that has been overlooked during the financial storm of the past six to seven years – is to acknowledge that not all employees are cut from the same cloth.  The need to recognise this has become more acute given the fact that since 2008 – when the economy fell off a cliff – the proportion of so-called ‘Millennials’ (those born between circa 1980 and 2000) in the workplace is far higher than it was.  In fact, they are now the largest generation ahead of the Baby Boomers and Gen X, numbering 80 million in the US.  Millennials – or Gen Y, Echo Boomers and Netizens as they are alternatively known – are driven by fundamentally different factors in the workplace.  Therefore the challenge facing management and HR is to determine not only what sparks their engagement, but how this differs to other ‘groups’ within an organisation.

This is not to say it’s an easy task – according to Forbes magazine, 68% of corporate recruiters claim that it is difficult for their organisations to manage the latest generation of employees.   Meanwhile, an Ashridge Business School report revealed that the average member of Generation Y will move from their first job in under two years, underlining just how hard it is to keep them.   Whereas income was often central to how Baby Boomers’ defined their values and their lives, this has been perhaps less true for Gen X, and for Gen Y, pay takes a back seat to career prospects and finding a good cultural fit for themselves in a company.

What various studies have all concluded is that Millennials have always been taught the value of leading from the front, and as such they tend to crave responsibility and can become disheartened if they are left too long in lower positions.  In an age where they are bombarded with ‘five-minute success stories’ portrayed in television shows such as The Apprentice, it can be hard to adjust to the reality of a relatively junior role.  While it may not be practical to guarantee a promotion straightaway, younger employees need to know that genuine career prospects are on offer. 

At the same time, Millennials are known to thrive in a fluid structure where they can interact with senior managers and receive feedback from the top.  This so-called ‘corporate lattice’ rather than corporate ladder is very much a two way process where younger members of the team can input fresh ideas and their innate understanding of technology to those further up the company, whilst also learning from communication with more experienced employees.  Likewise, whereas Baby Boomers and Generation X employees may be comfortable working under rigid structures, Generation Y tend to operate best in roles which include variation and fresh challenges rather than process driven work.  It’s vital therefore that the training they are given and their day-to-day role both provide new experiences in order to keep them motivated.

Above all, as businesses approach the future with renewed confidence, they cannot ignore the fact that today’s Millennials are tomorrow’s leaders.  While their buy-in to the corporate agenda is paramount, it will ultimately be rewarded with innovation, passion and loyalty.