Leadership Development Vs. Cold Brew On Tap- What Do Millennials Really Want?

The ROI of Kombucha & Cold Brew

Are the espresso stations, kombucha dispensers and wine tasting nights at your office really helping you execute your work strategy?  Do you feel emboldened or overwhelmed by the hustle ethic culture that’s currently all the rage in our entrepreneurial age? Are the perks at your office a reflection of a robust leadership and people development ethos, or a flashy, cost-effective ploy to get greater ROI out of millennial and gen Z employees? What do millennials and the next generations really want out of their careers and from employers; do they know?

As a millennial, I never saw myself in the “trophy for showing-up” culture that seems to define us- it wasn’t my experience at school, home or work.  I do recognize myself in another millennial hallmark though- the drive and need for meaning and community, for personal and professional development, in my work.  This desire was the bright line thread that I followed through jobs at a software start-up, a refugee resettlement agency, and graduate school to my position today at a small but mighty women-owned consulting group. The teams I’ve worked on have been small, relationship-centered and mission-orientated; my work teams fulfilled my desire for meaning and community and my leadership teams have always emphasized investing in my leadership development. I’ve come to realize that my experience makes me unique amidst my millennial colleagues. It’s been through my consulting work, and working out of this hipster millennial concept (a pet friendly, 24/hour coffee bar co-working space) that I’ve been exposed to a greater diversity of cultures and conversations on what organizations need to do to stay competitive and attract top talent.

Autonomy… Community… Cucumber Water… What’s Getting Lost In Translation?

There here have been some interesting trends in the past decade as companies seek to attract a younger, more diverse workforce. Mainstream companies have taken the baton from tech start-ups and offer benefits that make it easier and more attractive to stay at work: gourmet chefs, cold-brew coffee, kombucha bars, dry-cleaning services and yoga studios. These benefits seek to signal to employees that their well-being matters, and they blur the lines between home and work, private and public spaces. While often eye-catching, thirst quenching and convenient, these external signifiers of culture can belie the most meaningful way to communicate you care about your people- investing in their development.

Millennials, or people born between 1980-2000, make up the largest generation in the workforce- 56 million or 1/3 of the workforce according to research. As companies pull out all the stops to win in the war on talent, our millennial desire for purpose and community has been translated into office spaces that would make everyone’s inner child gleeful (remember Tom Hanks dancing on the floor piano in Big?). However, data shows that something has been lost in translation; millennials remain notoriously restless and disengaged, changing jobs three times more than other generation, as Sarah Landrum writes in Forbes.  Why? According to Deloitte research, a whopping 71% of millennials who leave do so because they’re unhappy with their leadership development opportunities. This has major cost; estimates range from double to twenty times annual salary. What’s fascinating is that more than any prior generation, millennials are supposed to know what they want.  At InspireCorps, we believe that a leader’s first job is to inspire herself; if we millennials inherently understand this, why are we accepting cucumber water when we really want coaching? An experience I had with a client might shed some light on this paradox.

Craving Inspiring People Development

While eager and ready to increase their leadership skills, what’s currently on offer leaves many millennials cold; they judge leadership development programs designed by (and perhaps for) boomers as irrelevant to their job requirements and work landscape, behind the technological times and absent the mentoring and community they crave. This is when leadership development is even offered. In many cases, millennial leaders, who make up the middle layer of many organizations, are not on the receiving end of leadership development spending, averaging only 25% of the $24.5 billion spent on leadership development training. We’ve had this happen with more than one young company, and the client I have in mind is just one example. A marketing and web design company breaking into their second decade, had heavily invested in growth for the past 5 years, doubling the size of the team. Another marker of progress and hope for the future: they had just cut the ribbon on their bespoke, city-center HQ.

As the company grew and their middle layer of workers matured, cries for leadership development grew and prompted the CEO to reach out to us. Given that the client was new to investing in people strategy, we agreed to hold an introductory session with the senior leadership team (made up of mostly millennial-aged folks). In discovery interviews, leaders brimmed with hope and ideas for improving team effectiveness and relationships: greater transparency in decision-making, a robust feedback culture, autonomy in their work, and a more open communication channel to the CEO. Several of the millennial leaders expressed a desire to develop their leadership capabilities so they could both role model and support their direct reports, many of who were in their first or second job out of college. I remember one newly minted senior leader in particular, he was eager to create impact and demonstrate value through improving his leadership skills and brought pages of notes with ideas and questions. 

Analyzing results from the interviews, it became clear to me that while everyone appreciated the beautiful new office and relaxed working environment, they craved something deeper and more difficult to create: an inspiring people development strategy.  We presented these results to the CEO and held a conversation with the team about what a strategic and inspired leadership development plan could look like. In conversation with clients, we never shy away from the challenges of building a culture that prioritizes inspired people development; it requires first and foremost a foundation of trust, empathy, vulnerability, and courage. It means taking the time to understand the strengths of each your employees and discussing on how their role can be shaped to capitalize on those strengths. Building a “coaching culture” means asking instead of telling and giving your employees the space to discover the answer for themselves, sometimes watching them fail towards the right answer and not saving them or punishing them in the process.  An inspired people strategy takes time and resources, and progress can be challenging to measure quantitatively.

In the end, the CEO chose not to invest in his people this way. Within the year, true to millennial form, that manager with his notepad of ideas left to pursue opportunities elsewhere. The big plot twist: the CEO was a millennial!


Millennials Don’t Have It All Figured Out

On behalf of my millennial peers, a mea culpa: we do not have it all figured out. Millennials share just as much responsibility as their Gen X and Boomer counterparts for the paucity of leadership development outside of the C-Suite. Perhaps some of us have been too eager to accept sleek offices and glamorous team bonding retreats instead of staking a claim for investing in developing psychological safety on our teams, or for spending resources on developing our “soft” skills. While taking initiative and embracing an entrepreneurial spirit are wonderful and important traits to have, changing jobs every three years robs us of the ability to develop roots and co-create the cultures of trust and community that we long for at work. As we age up and the next generation begins their leadership journey, it’s on us to start, continue and deepen the conversation on what meaningful people development looks like and invest our resources differently.


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