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Alicia Blain

Millennials in the workplace


Quote:  “You can’t lead without imagination”  ~  Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us

Imagination is seriously lacking in today’s corporate environment.  We are knee deep in a status quo that no longer serves us and that in many ways, makes us mediocre.  To change that, we need to spark imagination in all our employees.  But first, we must spark it in ourselves as team leaders. To create the spark you need to embrace experimentation.  I’m not talking about creating a department or a committee to look into experimentation.  I mean changing the way you lead your team so that experimentation is always encouraged and rewarded.  When an idea doesn’t work out, it isn’t perceived as failure but as a learning experience that enriches the team and the lesson learned can be utilized to fuel the next experiment.

Experimentation is the final but core concept in the C.A.R.E. System.  It is what ties it all together. In these posts, I have showcased Starbucks and its CIO to illustrate the key principles behind the C.A.R.E. System.  At the very core of Gillett’s success was his innate acceptance or need to experiment. None of the examples would have been possible if Gillett had not embraced experimentation. Let’s recap all the ways he experimented:

  • When he took on more responsibility in the face of daunting IT problems that needed resolution
  • When he went to work at a Starbucks retail store, not knowing what he’d find or how he would do,
  • When he showed the Executive team a live simulation highlighting the shortcomings of their existing POS system
  • When he proposed the new business unit called Digital Ventures,
  • When he chose an entrepreneur to run the new business unit,
  • When he made IT and Marketing equally responsible for the new business unit
  • When he asked employees for their ideas on making IT better,
  • When he let employees select their IT devices,
  • When he applied his knowledge of networks to help spark solutions in Starbuck’s retail business.

All of these examples illustrate that Gillett was open to experimentation. He may not have been comfortable with all of it but he chose not to play it safe.  At some level, he understood that taking risks was critical to Starbuck’s survival and he, as well as his CEO, faced the challenge and came out ahead.  I’m sure that there were ideas that didn’t work out.  In fact, the article highlights one. Apparently, Gillett is a big gamer or lover of video games. Actually,  he’s a guild master in the online video game called World of Warcraft.  That’s a pretty big deal in the gaming community. Instead of playing down that passion, he  set up a meeting between the executive teams of Starbucks and Blizzard, the owners of World of Warcraft so they could look into the possibility of doing business together.  After all, both companies had a huge fan base and Starbucks needed to find ways to engage customers online the way that Blizzard did. 

At the end, the experiment did not end up in a partnership.  But all was not lost.  The experiment sparked new ideas among the Starbucks executives that led to new offerings for their customers.  Embracing a spirit of experimentation almost always sparks the imagination and that leads to more possibilities for innovation.

For companies to be relevant in the future they must make experimentation a core objective for all departments.  It needs to be nurtured, rewarded and imbedded into the corporate culture.  More importantly, it is a pivotal component if we are to transform the way we lead.  Millennials will make up 50% of the global workforce in less than 5 years.  As leaders preparing to pass the baton to the next generation leaders, I believe it is our obligation to embrace change and find new ways to lead.

So you may be wondering what happened to Ben and his direct reports? As I dissected the Starbucks case study, Ben was able to see real world examples of C.A.R.E. in action.  It sparked their curiosity and an eagerness to try new approaches in their organization as Gillett tried to do in his.  Ben, as CIO, made a very important decision that day.  He chose not to play it safe.  He realized the future required new ways of seeing things and new ways of leading.  The Millennials were their new audience not just as employees but as customers. He realized that if transformation was going to happen, it needed to include the Millennials in the workplace.  And he was ready.

I’ll end this series by quoting Seth Godin one last time.  In Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us, Seth writes:

“The safer you play your plans for the future, the riskier it actually is.”

My questions to you are:  How safe are you playing your role as leader? What one thing can you do today to get you slightly uncomfortable? What one thing can you do to get to know a Millennial in your workplace? 

Like me, you’ll find that staying in your comfort zone as a leader is actually riskier than embracing a little discomfort to prepare for the future. Once you step out of your comfort zone and see all the possibilities that it offers, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner…

Quote: “ I don’t think we have any choice.  I think we have an obligation to change the rules, to raise the bar, to play a different game.”   ~ Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us

Connecting with our employees and customers and adapting our mindset gets us ready to play a different game.  But you also need action and to do that you have to be willing to RESHAPE your organization.  To Reshape is the third module in the C.A.R.E. System. To visualize just how you can begin to do that, let’s go to our Starbucks example.

Again, Here’s the link to the Information Week article.

Here are 3 examples of actionable steps that Gillett took to reshape his IT team and their reputation.

1.     He forced collaboration between teams.  In the C.A.R.E. System for Next Generation Leadership, we call this “Letting go of Silos”.  Silos are rampant across corporate America and they are innovation and motivation killers for most employees but especially Millennials.  One of the key Millennial characteristics is their collaborative spirit.  They work best in groups and the more you mix up the group the better. Imagine their surprise when they show up for work and see that business units barely interact with one another and they certainly don’t share and collaborate very much. In his pitch for a new business unit, Gillett forced the collaboration of the IT and Marketing teams.  Talk about silos that don’t normally have much in common.  The new unit was called Digital Ventures and Gillett hired an entrepreneur to run it instead of a corporate type. Now that’s playing a different game.

 2.     He let the employees choose their technology and propose new ideas. At a time when so many IT shops are still fighting the consumerization of IT here is a company that allows their employees to select from a wide assortment of technology, from Macs to PCs to smartphones to get work done. To be completely fair, the article did say that Starbucks modeled their Tech Café after the Apple Store. That brings up a good point.  We should always be scouting the market for techniques that work for others and how they can be customized for our specific organizations.  What I liked the most was that they welcomed feedback from the employees on all things concerning IT.  In the C.A.R.E. System, we call that IT Advocacy.  Millennials are the first generation of workers that actually want more technology than what currently exists in the workplace.  No matter what team they work for, they can be invaluable to an IT Dept.  But IT has to take the first step and request their help and then be open to the suggestions given. As IT Advocates, Millennials can be a wonderful test group for any new product, process, or upgrade that the IT Department is considering. If done properly, IT Advocates can be a great extension of the IT Department.  As IT partners, they also create a great fan base for IT in the company.

3.     Applying expertise from an unrelated field to solve a different problem.  Gillett had little retail experience before working at Starbucks and according to the article he had never worked on the scale of a Starbucks.  But he had worked for companies with big networks like Yahoo. Instead of disregarding that experience, he leveraged it to understand the retail giant and apply that seemingly unrelated experience at Starbucks.  Gillett is quoted in the article as saying:  “[…] big Internet, like Yahoo, had solved a lot of the technical challenges that big retail had yet to solve… If you think of all your stores like nodes on a network, and all your resisters as computers rather than cash registers, you can start to manage and deploy […] like Yahoo would a server farm […]”   Many examples exist in business of how breakthrough ideas and products are discovered when a solution that worked in a completely unrelated field is applied to solve a different problem.

 Sometimes, organizations are too narrow-minded in how they view and value experience.  Perhaps an employee in your team has expertise in solving problems in another field that can be the breakthrough idea you need to solve a problem.  You’ll never leverage that unrelated expertise if you don’t know about it or you don’t support it or you don’t find an outlet to try it out.  Experimentation is the subject of our last post in the series and a pivotal one for transformation to occur.

Quote: “What they needed was a leader to bring the organization to a new audience in a new way.”       ~ Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us.

If you’re not quite sure why Millennials are an organization’s “new audience”, I invite you to read through some of my past blogs to get a thorough understanding of this unfamiliar group.  As leaders, we won’t be able to really reach that new audience unless we are willing to create a new way or at the very least question our existing way to see if it will work going forward.

That’s why it’s so important for us to ADAPT and find a new way so our next generation employees are engaged and productive in our teams.  ADAPT is the second module of the C.A.R.E. System for Next Generation Leadership and it’s an important one because it has to do with a leader’s state of mind. ADAPT is all about mindset and getting comfortable testing your boundaries.

So what specific things can we do to ADAPT our leadership style?  Let’s look at the Starbucks case study for ideas.  As the new CIO, Gillett embraced 3 things that got him out of his comfort zone and ready to ADAPT and find a new way to lead his IT team.

Again, Here’s the link to the Information Week article.

1.     He was curious and courageous. The article quotes Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as saying that Gillett “had an insatiable curiosity and wasn’t afraid of pursing big, bold ideas.” Curiosity and courage are key components of the C.A.R.E. System.  To change and adapt to a new way of doing things and of leading is not easy.  You are fighting yourself and those in the organization that want to keep the status quo alive.  Without being inherently curious, asking lots of “why do we do it that way” questions and being willing to fight the good fight, it is very difficult to ADAPT and give your new audience – the Millennials – a new way.

 2.    He asked for even more responsibility.  In early 2009, Gillett has been in Starbucks for just one year and realizes he inherited what can only be termed an IT nightmare. At the same time, Starbuck’s new CEO, Howard Schultz,asks the company executives to give him ideas on how to turn the company around. He urges them to think outside their corporate functions. Does Gillett ignore his boss’ request because he legitimately reasons he already has too much on his plate? No. He goes ahead and pitches an idea for Starbucks to make a venture capital investment in a new business unit designed to push the company’s mobile and online strategy.  That was a gutsy move.  Instead of sticking to what he knew and focusing on just that, Gillett saw a rare opportunity to be part of a transformation at Starbucks.  It required him to take on more than he probably could chew at that time. He got out of his comfort zone and adapted his mindset to take on a strategic challenge and he succeeded. According to the article, since creating the new venture “Starbucks has become a retail leader in mobile payments”. By stretching yourself and getting uncomfortable you push yourself to try new things.  Like a muscle, the more you use it, the more comfortable you become letting go of your status quo.

 3.   He instilled an entrepreneurial spirit into IT.  That’s very rare to see.  IT departments in most large organizations these days are all about following the rules, often playing it safe, and saying a lot of NO in the interest of “security”.  In the next post, we will see examples of what Gillett did that went against these typical IT practices.  The examples were possible because he elected to run IT not so much as a corporate business unit but rather as an entrepreneurial venture. They opened themselves up to try new things.  The focus was to address the needs of its customers – both inside and outside the corporate walls. That ultimately showcased IT as an enabler instead of  a cop.

 In today’s super competitive, global marketplace,  organizations that don’t want to fall behind need to be run by leaders that are open to adapting their frame of mind and leadership frameworks to make way for the future. They need to ADAPT and find new ways for their new audience – the Millennials.

If my boss tells me, ‘not now’ one more time, I’m going to scream”.  That was Katie, one of the many Gen Yers in my professional circle.  She was frustrated once again by her boss and his inflexibility in trying something new. “He keeps making excuses about our team’s workload, our time constraints, the budget to shut down any ideas we bring to him”. 

I explained to Katie that “not now” was the leadership code word for “that makes me uncomfortable”.   After observing Millennials for so long, I realize that they come to the workplace with a different microchip imbedded in their DNA.  When that microchip gets activated by such things as: presenting a new idea, recommending a new but untried process, collaborating with people outside your team, the seasoned leader or manager gets another sampling of the unfamiliar and they don’t like the feeling. 

The savvy and astute leaders use that sampling either as a way to test the tried and true or to experiment with something new.  They see the opportunity to do things differently that the Gen Yers are bringing to the workplace and they go with it.  Most leaders just say “Not now. We’re too busy, too understaffed, too [fill in the excuse du jour].”  “Not now” lets them hold on to the past. It lets them ensure continuity of the way they’ve always done things, it provides a safe haven from the unfamiliar. 

To a sharp and eager Gen Yer looking for motivation and a way to stand out, “not now” is like taking a dip in freezing cold ocean water in January.  It takes your breath away but not in a good way.  For 20-somethings like Katie, getting told “not now” repeatedly is a let-down and a HUGE motivation killer.  Why should she continue to bring up ideas when all she’ll get is a lame reason designed to uphold the tried and true.  What ultimately happens with that inflexibility in leadership style is that talented people like Katie either leave or stop caring. They stop trying to bring their unique and much needed perspective into the workplace.  Either way, the organization loses out on capitalizing on her talent. It also loses out on getting comfortable with change.  Can any organization today afford that?  Yet, time and time again you can see many bosses across countless organizations emulating Katie’s boss’ behavior. 

My question is:  how long can we allow “not now” to continue? How long until it hurts the team and the organization?  Holding on to what has worked in the past is a recipe for failure if it’s not constantly being tested or reassessed for its value going forward.  Gen Yers have some great ideas to share in the workplace that test the tried and true.  That should be embraced by leaders of forward looking organizations. Some of the ideas may not work but I can guarantee that everyone will learn and be better off by trying them out. 

By leading the Millennials, I learned that “not now” couldn’t hold a candle to “let’s give it a try”. I just had to get comfortable saying it. I realized that “Not now” fed my fear of the unknown while “let’s give it a try” gave me possibilities.  It was also music to the ears of the Millennials in my team.  It gave them hope that things could change and that their input could make a positive difference at work.

So what about you?  Do you catch yourself saying “not now” a lot at work?  Replace it one time with “Ok. Let’s give it a try” and you’ll see that the world does not fall apart.  Maybe you’ll see your Gen Yers light up with hope instead of mope with disappointment.