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What Are Millennials Really Like at Work? We Asked Three CEOs

A boomer, a Generation Xer and a millennial talk about the strengths, weaknesses and differences between their generations in the workplace

In 2016, Deloitte released its Global Millennial Survey. The purpose was to uncover the drivers of job satisfaction for millennials – by the survey’s definition, that’s people born from 1982 onwards – through hundreds of interviews with younger adults throughout the world.

Deloitte says this is the largest cohort in working in the U.S. labour market today. Understanding what makes millennials happy in the workplace, says the global consulting and audit firm, could give global corporations insight on how to decrease turnover and increase engagement.

The survey identified a number of common traits among millennial-aged employees. Many have “one foot out the door” – in other words, a lack of long-term commitment to their current employer. The majority don’t believe they’ll be at their current company by 2020. Respondents also told Deloitte they desire more flexibility – to be able to do work from home or places they feel most productive. And when they are at the office, they want a creative, inclusive working environment where they spend most of their time discussing new ideas.

The whole notion of distinct generations – namely, baby boomers, Generation X and millennials – can be problematic. Grouping people based on age is too reductive to capture individual differences, and causes us to over-generalize (boomers had it easy, millennials are lazy, and so on). No one can agree how to define generations anyway: Depending on the report, a person born between 1976 and 1981 might find herself defined as a millennial, a member of Generation X, or the now largely forgotten Generation Y (caution: link contains coarse language).  

Yet if we accept that the concept of generations isn’t too rigorous, grouping people based on when they were born can help researchers identify the gradual shift of workplace attitudes. How do (so-called) millennials and boomers think differently about how to get the job done? And how can leaders best navigate and work with those differences?

Billy sat down with three Canadian CEOs representing three different age cohorts to talk about workplace culture, career expectations, whether the nine-to-five work day remains relevant, and what people from different generations really think about each other.

The Millennial

Jamie Shea, CEO of meal kit service Chef’s Plate, says people his age want to take their work home with them, but he also stresses the importance of working side by side.

Courtesy Chef's Plate

Jamie Shea

Q: What are millennials looking for in a job/work environment?

A: If you look at the typical standards that were set out by the baby boomers or even Gen X, typically, they went into work, took a few years and really earned their stripes in order to progress within organizations. With millennials, there’s a much quicker expectation that you’re going to move up.

What we’re seeing in our millennial staff is that there’s a ton of curiosity. They’re looking to find organizations that they believe in, and when there’s a natural fit, they really do dedicate themselves and pour all of their heart and soul into their jobs.

What we read about millennials (that they’re picky and they feel entitled) is just millennials trying to find the opportunities that truly make sense for them. That’s what they’re being picky about. We still get a bad rap for that reason.

How does Chef’s Plate keep millennials on their toes?

I think millennials are looking for many diverse experiences. If you’re employing millennials, you need to be cognisant and aware of that. We give people a lot of opportunity to have diverse experiences here so that they don’t leave. We’re an interesting organization because we’re a tech company and a food company, so there’s many different verticals where people can learn different skills or work in different functions.

If you’re aligning your organization properly to give millennials the key things that they’re looking for, they’re going to be productive and they’re going to move the needle. You’re hard pressed to argue that millennials are lazy and unproductive when you look at some of the best innovations and fastest growing companies right now. They’re all led and primarily managed by the millennial group.

What’s the culture like at Chef’s Plate?

We try to find really smart people, give them a lot of autonomy, and let them do what they’re good at. We’re have a very flat organizational structure; we work in primarily an open-concept environment and we’re flexible from an office face-time perspective. At the end of the day, everyone has a ton of work to get done, and so what time of day they do the work really doesn’t matter to us.

The Generation Xer

As CEO of global reading-and-writing app Wattpad, Allen Lau leads a team whose average age is about 30. Observing Wattpad’s employees, he says, “Many millennials would rather take a low-paying job where they enjoy every single minute in the work environment, rather than a high-paying job that feels like punishment.”

Courtesy Wattpad

Allen Lau

Q: What are some of the differences you’ve noticed between boomers, Gen X and millennials in the workplace?

A: I think that boomers are more financially driven and millennials are less financially driven. Gen X is somewhere in the middle.

Leaders in the boomer generation care less about work-life balance. But people now realize that working 80 hours per week just encourages bad decisions. Millennials, on the other hand, have to buy into the core values of a company. They have to align themselves personally with the values and the mission of the company. If they don’t buy into the mission, they’re not as motivated.

Gen X cares less about the mission and values of a corporation. They care more about the work that they do. For a tech guy like me, for example, an exciting hardware job or an exciting software job would be good enough.

Why do millennials place so much importance in working for a company they believe in?

For millennials, work is life. For Gen X and above, enjoying the eight to 10 hours they spend in the office is less important. They do it for the paycheque and to get compensated. Whereas for millennials, being able to enjoy what they do is key.  

What’s your managerial style like?

Command and control doesn’t work at a company with so many millennials. I also don’t believe in that. I believe that people closer to the ground can make the best possible decisions. I stay away from the tactical decisions as much as possible. I focus on setting the vision and strategy of the company, and that vision and strategy is communicated over and over again very clearly to the 130 people working for us, and to the 45 million monthly users on the Wattpad platform today.

Simply telling millennials what to do doesn’t work. They’ll always ask why. They believe if they understand why, they can make better decisions, which is what I believe as well. Ultimately, my job is to articulate a clear mission so that people understand the purpose of the company, aside from making money, you know? Then I let the team run the show.

The Baby Boomer

Ellis Jacob, CEO of movie-theatre giant Cineplex, admits that people his age aren’t always technical wizzes, but he sticks up for boomers as hard workers and team players.

Courtesy Cineplex

Ellis Jacob

Q: What are some of the core values at Cineplex?

A: Teamwork is something that boomers focus on. And whether it’s a boomer, Gen X or millennial, we look for integrity and innovation. You have to remember that at Cineplex, we’ve got close to 12,000 young employees on the front lines that are working for us every day. They make the difference. We have a culture where we have a lot of ideas coming from the bottom up rather than from the top down.

And why do you think a bottom-up approach is important?

You have to listen to your workforce, and know what they’re dealing with when it comes to your guests. That impacts the overall business.

And millennials want to contribute; they want to be part of a process. So it’s all about allowing them to make mistakes and learn from them. That drives companies forward, since procrastinating is one of the biggest problems that companies have. There’s so much disruption taking place today, so you have to be on your toes. In the old days, you could have a business plan for five years, today it’s changing every six months.

Thoughts on the nine-to-five work day?

I’m not a nine-to-five person because I’m always in theatres, replying to emails from my phone and talking to people in person. My motto in life is work hard, play hard. I don’t get upset if it’s a beautiful day out there and somebody isn’t here. If they had to work on the weekend, and they were here for me, that’s fine. I’m not checking the clock at our head office. We’ve all worked together for so long that there’s that level of trust and commitment.

What are some of the boomer generation’s best strengths?

I would say that baby boomers are good team players, they’re good mentors and they’re hard working. But technology is an issue, and baby boomers sometimes get set in their ways – they’re less ready for change. [Yet] I don’t find that with boomers in our company as much.

Published Wednesday, January 18th 2017

Header image credit: From left: Jamie Shea, Allen Lau, Ellis Jacob



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