What Happens When Millennials Run the Workplace, Take Two

You wouldn’t know it from reading the media, but it IS possible to strike a balance between extremely ‘Millennial’ and traditional workplace cultures. It all starts with the right leadership.

Recently, the New York Times ran a piece on Mic, a company run by 28 -year old CEO, Chris Altchek. Once you get past the routine stereotypes NYT always uses to describe Millennials, you’re bombarded with a nearly apocalyptic picture of the workplace: complete with hoverboards, pathological lying being considered acceptable, and child-like oversensitive employees. Altchek claims he focuses on the 40 million Millennials that went to college as his talent pool. He must have focused on the ones that had their parents filling out their college applications (Ha. Ha.).

Is this the best workplace a Millennial can craft? I doubt it, but I’m sure it’s in part due to growing pains. Altchek is missing what many Millennials miss: learning from others’ mistakes because they think Google searches can replace the benefit of experience. Altchek seems to not have graduated from being a startup entrepreneur to being a leader, building on what’s worked for others and strategically making changes.

Large, traditional companies that have been around for more than 25 years have structure for a reason and at least some of it works. More stringent recruiting standards, for example, ones that at least attempt to filter ethical employees from unethical. At the same time, traditional companies lack in some of the areas Altchek has right: creating a culture where people, regardless of background, feel comfortable voicing their ideas. Many companies today are experiencing high turnover because new hires feel like their potential is being ignored. Altchek has gotten around the obsession traditional corporations have with age and tenure. He might not have all the business etiquette pieces right, but he’s experimenting.

Is it possible to strike a happy medium between old-school and new school workplaces? The work we’ve done at Invati researching and implementing Millennial-inspired changes in 10 key areas of organizational design, responds with a resounding YES! Recently, I ran across an example of a successful Millennial-mindset software company, Bullhorn, and had the opportunity to interview 40-year-old CEO, Art Papas. Art maybe be just shy of being a Millennial, but his approach aligns well with our research (which, by the way shows you don’t have to be a Millennial to be modern!). Here are the three key strategies from Art’s leadership that allows for a forward-thinking, balanced culture:

Factor 1: Mission, Mission, Mission

Oftentimes, traditional, Boomer-led workplaces suffer from vague, uninspiring missions that don’t clearly include positive impact on the world. New-school workplaces often are so bold, they neglect to define the values and behaviors that are needed to deliver the vision. Art’s shared with me that his initial mission didn’t spark the right kind of behavior, nor was it clear, and that had a clear impact on his business.

Art: We had a mission when we first started that was customer focused but it wasn’t really memorable. It had the word worldwide at the end. People shortened it to global domination. I didn’t care enough to defend it. In 2007, the joke became reality and by 2009, there were slide decks around with slides that said global domination. We got arrogant, customers would say our sales team acted like bullies, the accounting team would say to customers ‘you need to pay your bills or you’ll be shut off’, and the customer team acted like customers didn’t matter. Our Net Promoter Scores (NPS) plummeted as did our Glassdoor scores.

Now I care about the mission. I will defend it if someone gets it wrong. I talk to a lot of other CEOs about culture, mission, and getting people passionate about a mission that they can sink their teeth into. CEOs are like ‘Yeah, yeah we have a mission statement”. Everybody read Good To Great, everyone knows we should have something. But it is very true that the younger generations are very focused on answering the question ‘What am I doing on the planet?’ because we have this global perspective on the world other generations didn’t have. So if you’re a leader ask yourself, “Do you believe in your mission or not?” If you don’t, get rid of it because it erodes the value of what you’re doing.

Factor 2: Be A Leader that Spends More Time Thinking About Harnessing Talent than Profit

One of our key definers for thriving companies are those who invest in talent as a primary strategic focus. Art agrees. He knows that the way to harness profit is to harness talent. Profit loss happens when he stops communicating the right vision and stops creating the right culture to make the vision come to life.

Art: I think about that a lot. I spend more time thinking about people than anything else. The number one thing that I am constantly thinking about is how is the team performing and behaving and what the cultural norms are. When I was a small company, it was easier. When I became larger, we had more people setting their own agendas. There are cascading levels now of people who are setting culture. The people that work for me are setting the culture for the people that work for them. I spend a lot of time on that because at the end of the day I think that’s all that matters. Strategy and vision are important, but the team that is executing that strategy and vision is what ties it all together.

Factor 3: Respect and Recognition

The extreme Millennial apocalyptic workplaces blur the lines between creativity and disrespect. People have anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 thoughts a day and a high percentage of those are…useless. So unless there is structure and etiquette in place to filter this high of a volume, allowing EVERYTHING to be said doesn’t add value. On the flip side, traditional workplaces often don’t respect incoming talent because of their age and tenure. New ideas are often met with “It’s always been done this way” or “We tried that years ago and it didn’t work” or “Who are you to add new ideas” attitudes. Papas overcomes both of these by using his mission as a way to reward and recognize people.

Art: I close every meeting by recognizing 3 or 4 people who live the mission and values. You’d never expect a rep from St. Louis be recognized in front of 600 people so that is powerful. People think, “What is Art saying that person did?” It creates powerful moments. If you work at this company, you can’t avoid knowing what we are trying to accomplish. Boomers have this idea that you need to be tough, this attitude of ‘no one ever recognized me’. But I think as you get older you get a foggier memory. People need praise. The instinct is when someone does something good, you move on. We try to create moments of memorable praise.

To Close

We all have to start modernizing our culture. The world around us has changed, digital has changed the way we expect to work and live. A great leader is someone who can decipher what to keep and what to lose from the old style of working. A great way to do that is to go back to creating a strong mission — and defining the best way to deliver on that mission with the talent and tools you have today.




Crystal Kadakia is a two-time TEDx speaker, author, and consultant on Millennials and the Modern Workplace. Her company, Invati Consulting, champions what she calls “talent driven organization design” to modernize the workplace through speaking, training, and consulting solutions.  She is the creator of the acclaimed virtual, blended training on generations, Generation University™, and the Modern Culture Assessment™ that drives organizations to strategically shift culture for the needs of modern employees.