How Companies Are Managing the Millennial Generation

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Jason Wingard talks about managing the millennial generation.

As multinationals seek to become bigger, faster and stronger to compete on the global stage, they’re launching new corporate development programs to mobilize their workforce. And their efforts are reaching far beyond out-dated cushy executive retreats.

Companies have employed all types of wide-reaching programs to help their workforce learn, grow and lead, which in turn helps with talent retention and recruitment. A range of leadership development opportunities have opened up, from online learning to corporate coaching, from traditional classrooms to virtual reality experiences. Each organization is experimenting with new initiatives.

Jason Wingard (@JasonWingard), chief learning officer at Goldman Sachs, sat down with Knowledge@Wharton to explain the pros and cons behind different programs being employed to encourage learning across vast organizations. Wingard, who was previously the vice dean of executive education at Wharton, also gives insights into what kinds of programs make millennials tick, and what initiatives effectively foster leadership development.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below. 

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s talk about some of the challenges you encountered at Goldman Sachs and Wharton’s executive education program. Let’s specifically discuss some of the challenges companies face in managing people from different generations.

Jason Wingard: As organizations expand, evolve and become more multinational, they bring in many different populations and generations of employees and managers. It can sometimes become difficult to have these different generations work together. Their values, experiences and educations are often different. When you bring them together and ask them to produce results, we have to help these workers overcome their differences to be as effective as possible.

Knowledge@Wharton: When looking at the different generations, how do you define millennials? What are some of the unique challenges in dealing with this generation?

Wingard: Millennials, in general, are characterized as Generation Y. From my perspective, they range in age from 18 to 26. They’re the youngest, most junior population in any organization. 

Millennials are unique because their baby boomer parents, in general, have given them experiences and support unlike any other generation in history. Many millennials had helicopter parents, so some may say they’ve been sheltered and entitled, but also received additional opportunities. As a result, they come to work with many relationships and expansive background experience. 

Some corporate leaders and managers feel that millennials are a little bit more entitled. While they’re willing to work hard, they also want access to high-level information about, for example, strategy. Or they want exposure to clients. Accessibility is very important to them. 

They want effective communication to understand how their role, as small as it may be, funnels into the larger organizational strategy. They also want a suitable work culture and environment, so they can feel good about where they work and feel integrated into the organization. They want to know about how the work culture is going to benefit them, beyond just ping-pong tables and free food. They want an effective, fun, engaging work environment.

Career orientation is also important for millennials. They don’t expect to take jobs that will give them a lifetime of employment. They want to build transferable skills that they can use for the rest of their careers. 

Knowledge@Wharton: What implications does this have when it comes to millennials’ work ethic and their attitudes towards work/life balance?

Wingard: A common misperception is that millennials do not want to work hard. But, in my experience, they work very hard. But, as I said earlier, they also want to understand the broader strategy and organizational goals. They’re willing to work hard, but when it comes to work/life balance, they want some predictability in when they aren’t working. They want some predictability and flexibility in spending time with their family and friends, and also focusing on their health to ensure they are balanced. 

Unlike prior generations at this age and stage in their careers, where they may have been willing to invest more time in their work, this generation wants to have more of a balanced experience.

Now remember, millennials are a product of the baby boomers. They saw their parents work really hard in the 1980s and sacrifice a lot of family time to climb the corporate ladder. They saw that this led, in some cases, to divorce or chronic health problems, and so this new generation does not want that. Millennials are willing to work hard, be engaged and stay motivated to be successful. But they want flexible corporations that can give them more balanced lives.

Knowledge@Wharton: With all these different generations in the workplace, what implications does this have for corporate leadership programs? What kinds of issues need to be resolved?

“Many millennials had helicopter parents, so some may say they’ve been sheltered and entitled, but also received additional opportunities.”

Wingard: At Goldman Sachs we’re focused on helping to mold effective managers. From a leadership development standpoint, we like to work with “Producer Managers”. The Producer Manager is an employee who has risen through the ranks quickly as an individual contributor. After various promotions they became managers, not necessarily because they are good managers, but because they were great individual contributors. As these people become managers, Goldman Sachs takes on the responsibility of teaching them how to be good managers. We help them understand how to motivate, communicate and lead others. We want them to help set a culture where people from diverse backgrounds can have fun and be effective. We teach them to evaluate people in the organization objectively, not just subjectively. These are skills and attributes that people don’t necessarily pick up by working their way up through the organization as producers. What we need to do, as learning and development professionals, is to take these highly motivated, highly impactful people and show them the benefits of being good, effective managers. We want the good work that they do to cascade down to others.

Knowledge@Wharton: Part of being a good manager, regardless of rank and level, is the ability to create effective teams. As business becomes more global, teams often have to work across multiple geographies and time zones. What is the current thinking on how to navigate some of the cultural differences that arise when you’re trying to encourage strong performance in a multi-generational, global team?

Wingard: As companies become more global, they are confronted with cultural differences among clients, employees and partners. We have to ensure our leaders are trained on issues related to sensitivity. They have to understand how their behavior may be perceived and how their actions may be received. We spend a lot of time coaching different leaders and bringing people together to generate cultural awareness and sensitivity.

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s turn to another point. A term I have often seen bandied about is “thought leadership.” What exactly is thought leadership and how do you nurture that within a company? 

Wingard: Thought leadership can be defined as new insights and new ideas about a given topic that can be shared with a wide range of people, and those insights and ideas can be applied in other organizations and other scenarios. 

Thought leadership, at its most basic, is articles, white papers, books and blogs written by leaders that can be shared within an organization or outside an organization. Thought leadership can come in different forms, including writing, interactive dialogues and interviews. Or it can come in the form of much more intimate, one-on-one discussions through mentorship.

For example, a political leader or a sports coach could talk to a large group about a crisis that they went through from a leadership perspective and explain how they navigated that crisis and came out victorious. They can explain the lessons they learned, which could be applied in other scenarios and other situations.

The process of sharing those ideas and having a dynamic dialogue creates an atmosphere where people can learn about new themes and new experiences. People within an organization, from the highest level to the lowest level, can take away relevant information. 

Knowledge@Wharton: Technology is one of the biggest drivers of change in organizations these days. What impact has technology had on the way companies approach corporate learning?

“Millennials are willing to work hard, be engaged and stay motivated to be successful. But they want flexible corporations that can give them more balanced lives.”

Wingard: Corporate learning has traditionally used a “push” approach, where curriculum is designed and pushed out to employees through classroom education, executive coaching, off-site leadership experiences and executive education at business schools like Wharton. There are many traditional strategies that corporations have used to deliver this kind of education. 

But now, with technology and e-learning, this creates much more of a “pull” operation. All of a sudden we have a mechanism for delivering educational content whenever an employee wants it. Instead of someone else dictating the type, speed, tone and schedule of learning, individuals now have more options and power over their learning experience.

Knowledge@Wharton: Academia has paid a lot of attention to massive, open online courses – also known as “MOOCs” — which are having profound implications for business schools and other educational institutions. Do you see any of these trends in corporate learning? If so, what are some of the key lessons learned so far?

Wingard: The MOOC is a wonderful phenomenon that emerged from universities. It allows you to package the best academic research and teaching and broadcast it to thousands of people around the world. These online platforms make education more accessible. 

The corporate MOOC is a new phenomenon that many providers are now developing. In the corporate space, MOOCs are being packaged for a corporate experience. 

Goldman Sachs has now launched several corporate MOOCs. This e-learning experience combines video with assessment and other reading materials. It also incorporates social media so you can talk to the professor and others in the classroom. It is designed to mimic a real classroom experience. This creates a “pull” opportunity for people who want to learn in their own time.

Most traditional corporate training happens during the workday and takes people away from their desks. In some cases, employees sacrifice time from doing their real work. With e-learning and MOOCs, you can take these courses whenever you want. You can do it during your commute. It makes it accessible. It also caters to a different learning style for a generation that may prefer to have a flexible learning experience.

So a millennial who is commuting can do all sorts of learning on a train, including watching videos, taking assessments and reading supplementary articles. They can also communicate with faculty members and others who are taking the course. That’s the way they want to learn. That dynamic set of choices and variability in the learning experience is what many people in the younger generations really want. 

Even in the older population, they’re finding it much more convenient to learn with MOOCs because they can cherry-pick the topics they want to address specific challenges they’re facing. MOOCs are a really good vehicle for helping people tailor their learning to deal with specific work challenges.

Knowledge@Wharton: As you get more involved in technology driven learning initiatives, what have you concluded about the limits of technology. Essentially, what do you think technology can do really well, and when does it fall short?

Wingard: Technology allows large organizations to scale up their curriculum and content to reach a wider audience. In a small organization, you can take 30 people and host a one-day dynamic session where the group can learn together and share ideas and this can be really helpful for that group. But as the organization grows, it can be difficult to distribute that information to thousands of people at a time. For example, if you have thousands of vice presidents in your organization, you will have a checklist of curriculum and competencies that you want them all to know about. But it’s not feasible to take all of these people, put them in a room and have a group education session. So technology allows organizations to distribute learning content to a much broader audience.

Secondly, it provides an opportunity for just-in-time learning, which is becoming more necessary for people who are working in dynamic situations where issues can crop up that they haven’t dealt with before. They need to be trained immediately and MOOCs can be useful in these instances.

Ultimately, e-learning gives employers scalability and accessibility. There are, of course, other benefits from e-learning, such as cost savings and reducing workers’ time away from their desks. But, for the most part, it’s about scalability and accessibility.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are you seeing much use of gamification and social media initiatives?

Wingard: Gamification is a phenomenon that is really growing rapidly in the corporate learning landscape. Most people have seen games being used by young kids who are playing in virtual 3D worlds, just for fun. Now corporate trainers and designers are creating immersive learning experiences in virtual corporate settings. One example is when you create avatars of real people and organizations and you build a model of the office environment. Then these avatars have to navigate real-world experiences to teach people what it’s like to provide leadership, communicate strategy and create a following. These are the things that we would teach in a traditional classroom setting, but you can watch it happen in this immersive virtual learning world. People have the opportunity to see a real-world character in a virtual reality setting, and they can see supporting video clips and little bubbles come up above the avatar’s head with supplemental content. It’s an opportunity to entertain people while delivering hard hitting content. It mirrors having a classroom session where you learn about a case and then you have students act out different scenarios in front of the class. 

Lots of organizations, particularly those that are trying to entice millennials and foster a fun culture, are using MOOCs, gamification and other forms of social media to deliver new learning experiences that millennials will appreciate. And older populations in these organizations are really warming to these new ways of learning as well.

Knowledge@Wharton: A lot has been written about the so-called “war for talent.” What are some of the new strategies and tactics that are being deployed in this war?

Wingard: We’ve talked about a few of the tactics that corporations are using. 

The war for talent is a real phenomenon now. For the first time in the last five years, there are a lot more job opportunities available to employees, both in their industry and outside of their industry. People are leaving the industries that they’ve worked in at a much more rapid pace. All of a sudden, companies are finding that it’s really challenging to keep their people, and it’s challenging to find replacements. The talent war is escalating. 

In order to recruit talent, you must have a value proposition that shows people why working at your organization is so important. You need to set an attractive culture. You need strong and dynamic leadership that people want to follow, which we talked about earlier. You have to create an environment where people say, “This is a great place to work. This is a place where we win. This is a place where we are productive. This is a place that nourishes and nurtures.” That message gets out and becomes broadly communicated. Then your recruitment team must codify these themes to encourage people to come to your workplace.

“All of a sudden, companies are finding that it’s really challenging to keep their people, and it’s challenging to find replacements. The talent war is escalating.”

On the other side is employee retention. Once you get the best people, you want to ensure they stay. This leads back to all the things we talked about before. Organizations have to spend a lot more time on this than they did in the past because it’s getting easier to find alternative jobs. Now, in this war-for-talent environment, companies have to spend much more time on their human capital. You have to stay close to your employees, understand what they want and provide at least some of the things they want. Organizations need to monitor and evaluate how well they are serving those needs. 

Companies have not had to focus on this very much in the past — particularly large companies — because they would always have talent coming in. For example, Goldman Sachs recruiters could go to a top business school and know that they would be able to attract the best talent based the bank’s reputation for excellence. Employees would come in and they would want to stay for a long time over the course of their careers.

Now, because of the millennial orientation and because of other opportunities cropping up around the world, we’re seeing that employees may want to come for a little while, but then look for opportunities elsewhere — for example, at small technology companies or small hedge funds. We have spent a lot of time thinking about this dilemma. We’re working to create a culture where people actually want to come in, stay, develop transferable skills and think about longer term opportunities within the firm. Many companies are thinking about their employees in this way as the talent war heats up.

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s tackle one last question: What is the relationship between corporate learning and corporate strategy? Is there evidence showing that companies that are able to integrate the two sides ultimately outperform?

Wingard: Historically, companies that have been most successful were able to develop a very strong corporate strategy. But it wasn’t necessarily true that corporate training, learning, and leadership development needed to be aligned with that corporate strategy in order to be successful. But business is much more dynamic now. The speed of getting products to market is much quicker. Organizations are now facing much more intense competition, which means they need to make sure they have a rock solid corporate strategy, as well as strong leaders that can implement that strategy as quickly as possible, and more efficiently than anybody else.

How can we get our people to develop these strategies in a much faster, much more creative way? That’s where corporate training comes into play. That’s why jobs like mine are so critical to an organization. We have to think not only about corporate training and education, but also about creative ways to stay constantly linked up with top leaders as they are developing new strategies. 

Leaders will be asking, “How are we going to develop new services and new products? What are the barriers that we’re facing? How are we going to resist pressure?” As leaders craft their corporate strategies and consider all the variables, the learning function needs to be top of mind. We need to be asking other questions concurrently, “How can we make sure that our people will be able to implement this strategy as quickly as possible? How can we prepare them? How can we get the right people aligned with the right roles? How can we create a pool of successors and new leaders?”

It’s particularly important in large, global organizations that there is a seamless connection between the people, the leadership development, the professional development and the strategy. If this isn’t aligned, you could wind up with a dynamic strategy that employees simply can’t implement. 

Historically, an organization like GE was known to develop its talent within its own corporate university. GE made a point to pair strategy with development and learning. Now many other organizations are doing that as well, including Goldman Sachs. We are constantly in the process of developing dynamic strategies, responding to the market, making sure that we’re providing excellent services to our customers and working seamlessly with our partners, while also making sure that our leaders are getting the right leadership development. We want to provide them with lessons, interventions, coaching, and access to learning content that will help them be as dynamic as possible.

You’ll see a lot of corporate universities following suit and multinational organizations that are hiring chief learning officers or creating forums for corporate strategy and corporate learning to come together. They are spending money, providing the resources and taking the time to get this right because it ultimately pays off, allowing companies to implement their strategies more effectively and get the returns they’re looking for. If you do not do this, you truly lose out. 

Now is a time when you can’t just have the strategy. You have to have the learning and strategy paired up. Otherwise, you lose your competitive edge. Twitter 

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