Creating Organisations Fit for Generation Y

If you are already a leader, you are most likely not from Generation Y (Millennials.) You are more likely to be a “Baby Boomer” or from “Generation X.” With this, as we grow older, we begin to notice our way of doing things is not to the same as our children.

We begin to ask ourselves questions like:

Why aren’t they behaving as we want them to? How will our organisations survive with behavior patterns like this? How do we change them?

 Us & Them Thinking

“Two roads diverged in a wood – I took the one less Tweeted about.”

It’s easy to think about “us” and “them” with the problem-side-of-the-equation usually emanating from “them.” Even when we try to empathise with Millennials (the “them,”) we think from the context of our own early lives.

We hear, “I remember being a teenager and I didn’t act like that. So why do you?

The point we miss in this type of reaction is that we are all physically and mentally molded by our complex changing experiences.

Our Brains are Plastic

“The send button is mightier than the sword.”

Billions of synapses form and break in our brains every second in response to sensory inputs and feedback from thoughts and emotions. If the intensity and quality of those inputs changes our brains adapt to meet these new demands.

Now think about the effects over the last fifty years of television, computer games and the internet. As we get older our brains become less plastic with differences between older and younger people becoming more obvious and extreme.

In the transmission of human culture, people always attempt to replicate, to pass on to the next generation the skills and values of the parents, but the attempt always fails because cultural transmission is geared to learning, not DNA.” ~ Gregory Bateson

How are Millennials Different?

“Keep your friends closer but your profile even closer.”

Millennials think differently. They have different value systems and are uncomfortable in hierarchical structures. Joan Snyder Kuhl discusses how leaders can invest in Milennials for the future of their organization.

“If your company can transform the way it operates to match the way these new workers think, live, and work, you will reap the rewards.” ~ Brian Halligan

Plastic Adaptive Organisations 

No matter how charismatic, leaders are powerless to counteract decades of social conditioning. It’s more sensible and productive long-term, to flex organisational cultures to accommodate Millennials and capitalise on their energy.

Perpetuating current structures and practices places Millennials in psychological conflict resulting in stress, loss of quality and poor productivity.

The way people work best continues to change and leaders and organisations who can’t or won’t adapt will fail to attract and keep talented young people.

Supporting the Millennial Mission

As years go by each generation faces the challenge of integrating younger people. The two different generational cultures want to work together but the balance of power is unequal. The “older establishment” has power and perpetuates current ideology whilst the Millennials have little power but have huge energy and a strong desire for meaning.

How do Millennials differ from earlier generations? Money, promotion, and retirement plans are modest millennial drivers. They are driven more by meaningful missions like transforming society and replacing unsustainable industries. Many feel want to save the planet, feed the starving, cure HIV or eradicate inequality; it’s a bonus if they make a healthy income along the way.

They love to learn, wish to be treated as adults seek solutions and move rapidly from job to job. Their attention span may be short but they can have great focus. Consider the concentration required to play computer games for four hours!

“Oldies” are the “change management” generation; reacting to change. Millennials live in constant and accelerating change and are better equipped and more comfortable with the concept of intentional re-invention.

Flexing Organisational Culture

Many Millenials, have a natural entrepreneurial tendency  and adaptive leaders harness their enthusiasm. Adaptive leaders re-frame organisational purpose and vision. Consider an organisation which is dedicated to encouraging its staff to focus more effectively and more rewardingly.

Organisations which capitalise on the way Millennials think, live, and work rather than impeding them with old outdated systems and structures, will reap the rewards of the millennial “bonus”.

“The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible — and achieve it, generation after generation.” ~ Pearl S Buck

When Millennial Take Charge

In time Millenials will take over the reins and develop leadership styles of their own. In their review, Adapting leadership theory and practice for the networked millennial generation, Janis Bragan Balda and Fernando Mora conclude this:

It is possible that they (“Millenials”) conceive of their role not as other directed (as traditional servant leadership theory would envision leadership), however, but as service and action oriented for the benefit of others as well as for themselves.”

Boomers” along with “Generation X” leaders are 100% responsible the world in which our children and grandchildren grew and hence for the ways their brains and behaviours developed. I apportion no guilt or judgement in this assertion but just as the rate of cultural change increases so will the rate at which existing leaders need step aside for the new breed.

Parents often talk about the younger generation as if they didn’t have anything to do with it.”  ~ Dr Haim Ginott

 Think On These 

Things you might consider today

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how aware are you of the needs and strengths of Millennials?
  • Take a minute to talk to young people in your organisation. Ask them why they came to work here and the ways they like to work (make sure they know you are just trying to learn from them!)?
  • How well does your organisation align with their needs and harness their strengths effectively for mutual benefit and achievement?
  • What might you do to continue the conversation and evolve your culture?

Recommended reading:

Generation We: How Millennial Youth are Taking Over America and Changing the World – Eric H. Greenberg & Karl Weber


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

 Gary Coulton

Dr Gary R Coulton is CEO of Adaptive Intelligence Consulting Limited
He empowers leaders to release their Adaptive Intelligence
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L2L Contributing Author


  1. waltika on May 13, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    Interesting post but I feel that it’s not a difference between generations as much as it is a difference between creatives vs. power driven individuals. What is different now is that the creatives have a way to outperform the power hungry because they can strive through the fast and direct channels created by the internet.

    • Gary R Coulton on May 14, 2014 at 4:43 am

      Hi Waltika, You saw through my hidden agenda! As you rightly say, there is probably a more relevant divide between those who seek power for itself and those who live a creative life with their influence following as a consequence and is not a goal in itself.
      I suspect that Generation Y (if there is such a thing) may contain more people who have had their creative tendencies potentiated by their sensory experiences. The way they have learned and the external stimuli they received during their early lives has been a great stimulus for their creativity.
      The older constraints of respect, honour, loyalty which were an expected “right” once upon a time now emanate from meaningful action and not positional power.
      Humans are successful only because we are the ultimate team builder species. A dynamic balance of creativity and organisation is the sweet spot. Too far towards either pole creates difficulties – chaos or despotism. To my mind the art of the leader is to create an environment where the balance can be maintained naturally.

      • waltika on May 14, 2014 at 3:53 pm

        Spot on! Do you know holacracy as an organizational model? I quite like it because it enforces collaboration without going into fluffy shapeless flat organizational models.

  2. waltika on May 13, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    Reblogged this on Waltika.

  3. Tom Schulte on May 13, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    Waltika, I think what you have said is pure genius! You might be on to something! As a creative Baby Boomer, I appreciate that point of view very much! It makes a lot of sense.

  4. ramakrishnan6002 on May 13, 2014 at 7:57 pm

    Reblogged this on Gr8fullsoul.

  5. edlhansen51 on May 13, 2014 at 11:47 pm

    Talk about a timely blog. I happened to be in a conversation this with some significant US health care leadership. The issue being discussed was the dubious qualifications of current hospital and health systems CEOs to be the CEOs of the future in health care. The question was, “Can the current C-Level leadership in health care lead the new culture professionals within the health care service provider industry or must they be supplanted by a new cadre of Generation Y thinkers and doers?” I am not sure we yet have the definitive answer to that complex question. However, I do feel that there is no substitute for experience and there is a lot of it in current health care leaders that Generation Y emerging leaders could benefit from. What will work, I think, is a new leadership approach that positions existing C-Level leaders as coaches and mentors to those around them in health care organizations. Coaches do not have to be more skilled than the players they work with. They need only to be committed to optimizing the performance of those players. Pontification and posturings of “I am the Boss, do as I dictate” simply will not work with the independent, untethered and highly networked Gen Y professionals (physicians, nurses, technologists, technicians, etal). We who currently hold C-Level positions do not hold the cutting-edge orientation to the ever-increasing technological influences and implications these rising stars have. We would seem foolish in saying, “We know the path and can take you into the future. Do it our way.” And yet, great decision-making leadership comes only with experience. We must facilitate a blending of Gen X and Gen Y strengths. Thanks, Ed

  6. Gary R Coulton on May 14, 2014 at 4:54 am

    Dear Ed, Thanks for your very considered comment it gives rise to so many other thoughts! Here though is just one.
    Experience may be viewed in two ways. Some people claim to have “seen it all” and therefore their solutions to old problems will apply inevitably to all new ones. Others will know that it was the way they approached the problems and the deeply personal lessons they learned which gives them wisdom capable of addressing new challenges and opportunities.
    The really wise leader knows every new challenge is exactly that, new, and is definitively unknowable until you begin to address it in the moment. Experience in most cases simply gives you more things to try more quickly in order to find the best fit “solution”.
    On the other hand inexperience can be very potent as you are not hidebound by potentially narrowing “experience”.
    If wise leaders maintain youthful curiosity and Generation Y learn how to gain wisdom, wonderful things ensue when they synergise and share their strengths.

    • edlhansen51 on May 14, 2014 at 12:46 pm

      Gary, you are absolutely right. The comments you make and those you receive are provocative. A great thread. In great Generation X leaders, and I have seen a number, there is uniformly the notion that there is so much more to know and understand. They exhibit an open mind and that curiosity you mention. In fact, those who truly have “seen it all” know that doing so only brings home the reality that it is a big world out there and every new step is a journey of discovery. I went to Bangladesh eight years ago to open a hospital. I thought I was taking them “Best Practices”. I quickly saw that the medical professional community there really had its act together. I learned that a great leader should never assume anything. Nor should he or she presume thy know it all. Just as I argued that Gen X and Gen Y should meld, I saw in Bangladesh (and later India and Africa) that “Best Practice” often rests in being able to effectively meld old view with new view. Thanks, again, Ed

  7. Mick@leadershiptraq on May 14, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Great post! “Experience” is often used as a way to remind Millennials that they’d better listen and pay their dues. Yet experience will not be transferred apart from a relationship. Relationships are built on mutual understanding. Rather than vilifying a generational cohort, understanding their intrinsic values that drive their behavior opens up fresh new insights. It’s through relationships that tacit information is transferred (verses explicit information that is written down). As managers and leaders begin to see what Millennials bring to the table, their leadership will be leveraged and their organizations will flourish.

    Your 4 questions at the end are a great place for valuable dialogue to begin.

  8. Larry Walker on May 14, 2014 at 11:44 am

    Hi Gary, Your piece is excellent and extremely well presented. Thanks for articulating one of the important challenges facing our organizations today.
    A related story: As I was approaching 40 (many, many years ago), I once gave the following speech at a computer industry conference.
    “I was not one of the earliest people in the computer industry, however, I was in early. I now have 17 years of computer hardware and software experience. The other day it occurred to me that when our young people leave college, they will have had 17 years of computer experience already. Now imagine what the best of them will do!”