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Alicia Blain


In today’s USA Today, an article titled:  College offers scholarship for Twitter ‘essay’   written by Luke Kerr-Dineen and Natalie DiBlasio caught my attention.  The University of Iowa held a contest worth $37,000 – the price of a full scholarship to their business school – for prospective students to submit a Twitter entry in place of a second essay.  That means that students would have to get pretty creative with 140 words in order to win the contest.

I thought that was a great example of the type of experimentation that is needed today in both universities and corporations.  As usual, the article highlighted the voice of some detractors that were not in agreement with the experiment.  I find that to be the typical reaction that plagues the leadership in many organizations today.  It’s the need to hold on to the “tried and true” instead of the “trial and error”.

Is it just me or does anyone else question  the intensive focus that is placed on the essay part of the college/MBA applicaiton process by most parents today.  Every one of my Boomer friends who has had a child apply for college has been intimately involved in the application process. Some of them more so than their children. Some have hired professional writers and editors to “review” (read redo) the essays their children prepare.  Most have spent countless hours perfecting the essays.  As Jodi Schafer, the University of Iowa’s director of MBA admission says, this intense focus on the essays has made them “unoriginal and often highly edited”.  I couldn’t agree more.

Doing something creative like the University of Iowa’s MBA program  is doing has 2 advantages:

  1. It gets people comfortable with trial and error.  The University of Iowa had no idea whether this experiment would work or not but you can be assured that going through it will give them a ton of ideas and ways to perfect it the next time or do something different.  They didn’t let the risk of failure stop them.  More universities and companies need to adopt that way of thinking if innovation is going to thrive in the future.
  2. It utilizes 21st Century tools.  Instead of relying on contest tools that were used in the past, the University decided to use the twentysomethings tool of choice to challenge them. After all, these are the tools this generation is comfortable with and will undoubtedly keep using as they get older.  As organizations bring in twentysomethings and begin to tackle the challenge of grooming them to be 21st Century leaders, they will need to get creative in how to employ these tools.  Shutting them down and prohibiting their use may not be the optimum reaction to effectively embracing innovation in the form of new tools.

It’s refreshing to read about how some universities are finding creative ways to deal with the challenge of adapting to the 21st Century.   The article highlighted other creative ways organizations are using social media in contests to help students find funding alternatives for college. It’s a win-win for both the students and the organizations that choose the scary path of experimentation.

What about you?  What new ideas are you trying in the workplace today?  Are you holding on to the tried and true or venturing into the trial and error?  Take a page from the University of Iowa: don’t just think outside the box.  Throw it out and see what new idea takes its place.

By now you all know that I am a huge fan of Success Magazine.  It’s one of the few magazines that I continue to get as a hardcopy.  One of the reasons I do that is because I love the free Success CD that accompanies every edition.  I take the CD and listen to it when I’m driving.

I’ve been a little busy these last few months and sort of fell behind on my Success CDs.  Yesterday, I just finished listening to September’s CD.  Like I said… I’m a little behind.  I was totally captivated by an interview that Darren Hardy, the Publisher of Success Magazine had with 3 amazing Millennials.  I was so captivated that I had to stop the car & listen to the interview.  It was very moving.  Darren was interviewing the founders of a non-profit organization called “The Invisible Children“.  The founders were 3 Millennials.  Their names: Jason Russell, the mastermind that started the whole project, Laren Poole and Bobby Bailey.  These 3 young men in 2003 were barely in their early 20′s with Laren Poole being the youngest at 19.  They decided to take a “road trip” to Africa that started them on a journey that would change their lives and so many others in a positive way.

You see, they got stranded in Northern Uganda and came across an unsettling reality:  children were being kidnapped every night from their homes and forced to be child soldiers by a rebel army in the area.  To avoid this fate,  children would walk barefoot every night, night after night to the centers of the cities to avoid being kidnapped by these rebels.  These 3 young American Millennials were shocked by this and felt compelled to document it on video.  That started their journey to not only raise awareness but raise money and enact legislation to help these young children in Northern Uganda.

I wish you could listen to this captivating CD.  I wasn’t able to find it on the Success Magazine website but I found the next best things. One was an article written by Sally Deneen in January of 2009 titled: “Making a Difference – Invisible Children“  .  There’s also a great video in Success Magazine’s Video Library called “Invisible Children“.  It’s a great short video and well worth the time to watch.

As you will see by reading & watching the video, these 3 young men started a movement.  They reached out to young Millennials just like them and showed them what was happening in Northern Uganda and what they wanted to do to change it.  These 3 young men wanted to rebuild the schools in war torn Uganda to give the children a fighting chance.  And their Millennial peers across the US heard the call and put their collective support behind them.  Since 2003, these 3 Millennials have gone from embarking on a youthful adventure on another continent  to starting a non-profit organization that has raised millions for their cause AND just this past May, they were influential in passing a bill in the House of Representatives called the LRA Disarmament & Uganda Recovery Act.

Not too shabby, wouldn’t you say?  In the video that’s on the Success Magazine site, I love what Jolly Okot,  Country Director in Uganda says about who is raising the money for this effort.  She says ” It’s young people like you who are raising the money… not the big people”.  I love that quote.  It’s the young, not the big people.

As I listened to the CD in my car, I felt such pride for this generation.  They have such a powerful way of using their collective strength for good.  I couldn’t help but wonder how much more innovative and productive corporations could be today if they just tapped a small piece of the talent that their Millennial employees have and are dying to deploy.  I also worried that so many corporations would ultimately lose out on the best talent because they are failing to see it, to tap it, to inspire it and grow it NOW.  Millennials are not afraid to go elsewhere & usually it’s to start their own companies or in this case, their own non-profits.

Darren asked these 3 amazing Millennials to give organizations advice on how to tap the Millennials that worked for them.  They gave some wonderful advice that I want to share with you because it goes to the heart of what leaders need to do to engage & retain the Millennials.  I don’t remember which of the 3 Millennials said it but he mentioned the Triple Bottom Line. To engage Millennials,   corporations need to focus on Profits, People & the Planet.  Too often, corporations just focus on the first and almost to the detriment of the last two.

Other advice:  

  1. For leaders to swallow the fear.  Let the Millennials go where they think they should go.  I couldn’t agree more.  At first, I was afraid to trust the Millennials because their approach was different than mine.  But I slowly discovered that by blending their unique insights with my experience created a win-win situation and sparked creativity and innovation in ways that would have never been discovered if I had not chosen to let go of the fear & just experiment.
  2. Show  Millennials how they affect the Mission statement.  Connect the dots for them.  This is so true.  Most leaders never spend time with their staff showing them directly how they affect the business.  That’s why most employees have no clue of the strategic direction their company is taking & how they contribute to it or not.  Every year, after we completed the IT Strategic Plan, I would convene my team & share the plan with them & how it fit within the bigger corporate plan.  Then I would individually show them how each one of their projects contributed to the IT plan & the bigger plan.  This was illuminating not only for the Millennials but for all the generations that made up my team.  There’s nothing more rewarding than to see how you affect the bigger picture.
  3. Value the impossible.  I love that.  I think that is sorely missing from most corporations today.  We just play the safe bet. We stay only in the realm of what we think is possible.  That’s a recipe for mediocrity.  These 3 Millennials at such an early age understand that there is value in trying what has not been done.  Experiment & try the impossible.
  4. Take on a cause.  Millennials are hard wired for it and they look to their leaders to be part of a cause.  Pick one and get them involved.  You will see amazing results & your “cool factor” will go up as well.

So if you are spending a lot of time complaining about the Millennials in your team and how lazy & ineffective they are,  maybe it’s just because they are not inspired to do anything better.  Because when they are inspired, look out!  The sky’s the limit.  Just look at what these young men have accomplished in a short time. 

So what you?  What are you doing to inspire engagement & involvement & innovation in the Millennials in your team?

Last Friday, I got the rare treat to watch Diane Sawyer’s World News segment on ABC News called “Person of the Week”.  I was so glad I did because they featured a wonderful example of a Seattle high school whose teachers were trying innovative techniques to engage their students.  The school was the  Shorecrest & Shorewood High School and the name of the experiment was “The Social Experiment” . You can visit the ABC website and read ” Persons of the Week: Tech-Free Teens and the Teacher Who Inspired Them“.

It started with the creativity of a teacher named Trent Mitchell.  From the clip, he looks like he’s a Generation Xer but I could be wrong.  He teaches Video Production in the school and his students were talking about the Facebook movie, The Social Network.  The teacher teased the students about their dependence on technology and bet them they couldn’t stop texting and using social networks for a week. The students took him up on the challenge and ultimately it turned into a “social experiment” where the teachers and students would go tech-free for a whole week.

Trent’s challenge to the students was a great idea and inspiring because according to the clip, he wanted them to “ think about ways they can communicate besides just sending a quick ‘OMG, LOL’ message”.  In other words, he wanted them to experiment with other techniques and ideas to see where it would go. But before he could do that,  he himself had to get comfortable with experimenting with a different approach to teaching. It turned out to be a great experiment and even though many of the students found it strange to go tech-free and go back in time they discovered a lot about themselves and they learned to get comfortable talking to their peers in person rather than through Facebook or texting.  I chuckled because to these  Millennials, going back in time was going WAY back to 1995!

The real beauty of the experiment was that the students created a website and documented the entire project.  You can click here and visit the site to see all the great ideas and successes brought on by this simple yet powerful experiment.  Some of the videos prepared by the students were creative and thoughtful and just great to watch.  Just a wonderful blend of 21st Century tools with 21st Century teaching to create a vibrant student experience.  Wouldn’t it be great if other teachers and students in classrooms across America could take a page from the creativity shown by the Shorecrest & Shorewood High School and create their own versions of the Social Experiment.  Imagine the collective achievement and successes that could be obtained.

One of the recurring themes in my blog is the need that I see for institutions – be they corporate or educational – to embrace the idea of infusing a sense of experimentation into their teams or classrooms.  I often talk about my success in doing that as I began to hire Millennials and slowly realized that the way I led before needed a leadership makeover.  Part of that makeover was to let go of some of my past practices – what I call the status quo – and embrace new techniques that were untested and often made me feel a little uncomfortable trying them.  As seasoned leaders or teachers we instinctively call upon our trusty toolbox which we’ve taken great care to develop after so many years of leading teams ,managing people and teaching students.  These are techniques and practices we’ve used in the past that long ago were new & untested for us but that now fit us like a glove. We feel very comfortable using them.  What I found was that I was so comfortable using these technques that I never stopped to think whether they were still effective or not.  When I finally did, I realized that many of them were not because so much had changed over the years.  That change was manifesting itself in the young workforce coming into my team and causing me a lot of frustration and confustion. 

Once I let go of the need to keep the status quo and I began to experiment, I was able to adapt the techniques of the past so I could effectively lead the workforce of the future and the results were amazing.   This is exactly what Trent Mitchell and the other teachers did in the Seattle high school.  They let go of the traditional forms of teaching and experimented with a concept that was new to them, it was untested and probably a bit scary to undertake.  But look at the great results achieved not only for the teachers but for the students and hopefully, for other schools that get inspired by this innovative approach.  All it took was a baby step and great things were achieved not the least of which was to be selected as a Person of the Week on ABC News. 

Kudos to Trent Mitchell and the other teachers at the Shorecrest & Shorewood High School that participated in the experiement.  They should be proud of what they started.  More importantly, kudos to the students for participating wholeheartedly in the experiment and going back in time to learn some techniques from the past that aren’t so bad and are still pretty worthwhile to learn.

So what about you?  How are you infusing experimentation in your class or in your team to engage the students and workforce of the 21st Century?