Addressing your CEO's top priorities: how to engage Millennial employees (and others)

Addressing your CEO's top priorities: how to engage Millennial employees (and others)

Recent PwC surveys of CEOs have shown continuing concerns about maintaining a pipeline that’s flush with emerging talent. CEOs are finding that maintaining engagement among their youngest high-potential talent is particularly challenging.

How do you build a workforce that can be relied upon to meet tomorrow’s demand for innovation? By focusing on the key elements that produce engaged workers at every age and stage. We’ve conducted interviews with thought-leaders and seasoned HR experts from effective organizations to discover the best practices.


(in alphabetical order)

Kathy Anthony, COO and Partner
O’Sullivan Creel (
CPA consultancy
Pensacola, FL, USA

Tom Callam, Director of Human Resources
Corbett Duncan Hubly (*
Public accountants
Itasca, IL, USA

David Creelman, Partner
Creelman Lambert (
Human capital research
Toronto, ON, Canada

Molly Foley
Next Generation Consulting (
Market research firm
Madison, WI, USA

Tammy Hughes, President
Claire Raines Associates (
Intergenerational workplace consultants
Bellevue WA, USA

Angelique Keenley, Director of Human Resources
The Motley Fool (
Multimedia financial-services solution provider
Alexandria, VA, USA

Michelle Reid, HR Manager
Sun-Rype (www.sunrype.coms)*
Juice and fruit snack company
Kelowna, BC, Canada

Melanie Rydalch, Senior HR Manager,
Basic American Foods (*
Dehydrated food solutions for wholesale and retail
Walnut Creek, CA, USA

* Halogen Software customer

The latest wrinkle in maintaining employee engagement may be attributed to the generational cohorts now working together. It’s not the exodus of Baby Boomers causing concern — which has failed to present as large a crisis as once was feared — but the swelling of the middle management ranks. Many of today’s leaders are members of Generation X, who must manage an influx of younger workers (known as Millennials or Generation Y) who are just now transitioning into their first leadership roles.

As a best-practice, organizations must provide sufficient training and development for new leaders to help them effectively manage multiple generations of workers. Those that fail to do so will experience tensions between individuals with different communication styles and expectations, leading to reduced engagement and higher turnover.

Paying attention to how generations work together will greatly enhance the loyalty and productivity of every worker, especially younger staff.

Engaging your younger talent relies on your company’s performance on three levels:

  1. Meeting the needs of the individual being managed;
  2. Developing the leadership skills of the frontline managers those individuals report to; and
  3. Executing talent management practices that support the six dimensions of employee engagement throughout the organization.

Here's what our team of experts had to say about each of these levels…

Meet the needs of individuals

Within your workplace there may be staff members from as many as four generations. While the youngest are probably not yet in leadership roles, your managerial ranks likely include Boomers, Generation Xs, and Millennials. All bring their individual personalities, inflected by their experience as part of a generational cohort, to their leadership and communication styles.

The generations

Consider the following definitions of the three primary generational cohorts present in today’s workplace.


Baby Boomers:

Generation X:

Millennials (also called
Generation Y):

(in 2012):




(in 2012):




Percentage of population:




Defining characteristics:

  • Feel charged with making the world a better place
  • Interested in workplace equality
  • Appreciate a collaborative environment
  • Look for work/life balance as retirement approaches
  • Feel hesitant to trust others
  • Want a life outside work — not interested in 12-hour days
  • Work well independently
  • Not driven by money, recognition
  • Want to contribute to the bottom line
  • Feel results matter more than process


  • Raised with a coach approach
  • Passionate about righting injustice
  • Very team focused
  • Share credit when praised for their accomplishments
  • Optimistic
  • Multi-taskers
  • Technology-savvy “digital natives”


Productivity is not generation-, gender-, or culture-specific, according to Tammy Hughes. “We now have 30 year olds managing 50 year olds, corporate boards with a mix of 20-, 30-, 40-, 50-somethings. Their organizations are getting the benefit of generations working together.” If you are able to stimulate feelings of engagement in these diverse individuals, you'll not only gain the greater productivity shown to come from mixed-generation teams — you'll likely have much less difficulty retaining those high-performing individuals.

From an organizational perspective, the first step to generating a high-performing, highly-engaged workforce is to identify those people you can’t afford to lose. Get to know them, by looking beyond their identity as members of a generational cohort to their individual aspirations and priorities. “Each generation brings different priorities into the workplace,” said Molly Foley, “but more important is to look at the life stage of individuals. Life stages shift people’s priorities over time.” Any stage, from marriage to new parenthood to caring for aging relatives, can require flexibility to accommodate work/life balance — one of the six dimensions of employee engagement.

The six dimensions of employee engagement

Consider how these components are affecting motivation and engagement in workplaces where three generational cohorts come together in management roles.

  1. Trust: Managers communicate openly with employees at all levels. Managers and their reports share information, and believe that trust is mutual.
  2. Management: Leaders mentor and offer development opportunities to the next generation of leaders. They set and communicate reasonable but ambitious goals.
  3. Work/life balance: Managers encourage balance between work and life, and provide the flexibility needed.
  4. Development: Leaders create a culture that values growth and learning. Training is aligned with individual, departmental, and corporate goals.
  5. Connection to mission: Employees and managers feel connected on social and emotional levels. People want to work in organizations where the mission and values match their own.
  6. Rewards: Leaders allocate compensation fairly, recognize a job well done, and don’t hesitate to show appreciation.

Source: Molly Foley, Generation Next Consulting.

As companies are forced to do more with less, younger people can gain the opportunity to serve in multiple roles, which helps them mature more quickly. “We started to notice that some of our Millennials weren’t as engaged as we’d like,” said Angelique Keenley. “They want to know about different parts of the organization and they don’t mind moving around — in fact they prefer that to being pigeon-holed.” Several interviewees recommended offering younger staff learning opportunities through job-shadowing, cross-training, or lateral moves, to give them an opportunity to grow and also to witness how the organization lives its mission and values. This corresponds to two more of the six dimensionsdevelopment and connection to mission. Tom Callam observed, “We’re giving more responsibility at an early stage — Millennials crave it, and there’s no reason not to.”

Those with talent will soon be ready for leadership — which means they need specific training. “We have to get back to teaching people how to be good managers,” said Foley. A management system designed around development and coaching helps individuals discover the career path they aspire to, and have a voice in how they prepare for advancement.

To accommodate Millennials with potential, many organizations are becoming more flexible about promotions and reward structures. Callam said, “We’re not adhering to strict policies; we’re just looking at what people can do and promoting faster or slower according to actual talent. I don’t think we’re unusual in that.” Rewarding a job well done creates engagement across all ages and stages. Foley commented that leaders who realize “the importance of the Three Ps — pay, perks, and pats on the back” — are delivering on another of the six dimensionsrewards.

By meeting the needs of individuals, organizations take the first step toward engaging younger staff.

Develop the leadership skills of new managers

The second step required to create a culture in which young talent feels engaged is to train managers in the art of leadership. As young Millennials raised by “helicopter parents” come under the management of the “latchkey kid” generation, conflicts can arise. “How you were parented influences how you expect to be managed,” observed Foley. An independent generation is managing a more collaborative one that craves detailed management. Leadership development can ease that tricky interface.

Good leaders develop an understanding of diverse communication styles. Michelle Reid said, “It’s not just generations, but behavior styles, leadership styles, presentation styles, social styles — how people act, what they believe. A successful leader knows how to leverage people's strengths.” This requires flexibility in a leader. Is it okay if some employees text a manager, while others prefer to stop by her office? Yes. Adapting to different styles helps build the trust required for engagement.

Adding to the problem, according to David Creelman, is the shortage of good frontline managers. “In a big organization it’s a relatively junior role and, assuming the younger staff are entry-level, the managers who are key to engagement with these employees have the least experience with it,” he said, “and yet they have the toughest job, because they’re dealing with people who themselves are new to the work force.” Given that two of the six dimensions of employee engagementtrust and management — relate to the relationship between managers and their reports, this lack of training has a systemic negative impact.

Make developing young talent for management and leadership positions a priority; young employees will appreciate building their skill base. “Young people are seeking more hands-on management,” said Foley. “It sets them up for success — and it’s also how management skills get transferred, as young people experience great managers themselves.” Creelman added, “Investing in the selection process to recruit high-potential frontline managers, then following up with training and mentoring in the skills they need, is probably the single most important thing you can do.”

By developing the leadership skills of its managers, starting with the front line, organizations take the second step toward creating a culture of engagement at every level.

Execute best-practice talent management

The third step by which organizations create a culture that engages emerging high-potentials is to put in place talent management best-practices that support the six dimensions of employee engagement at every level of the organization.

“I really don’t want to be evaluated,” said Kathy Anthony, baldly stating the problem with a culture of yearly evaluations without attention to talent management in the interim. “We use a process of ongoing performance management instead of the evaluation, which people dread. We want our team members to own their performance. By changing our culture, our process is now embraced by managers and employees.” 

Frequent feedback is also a crucial component for creating engagement. Anthony commented, “The Millennials place a high value on coaching and feedback, which is not always an easy task in a busy firm. Sometimes the leadership is just not as focused on performance management as they should be, which is why you need a process and tool for capturing rich, timely feedback.”

Anthony emphasized that Millennials need and appreciate performance management. “Because we work in an environment where employees are assigned to different clients and different engagements, they may not have just one direct manager overseeing their work.” After each engagement, she assigns the review and feedback tasks to the specific team involved, so the individuals and their managers get a clear understanding of their performance on that assignment.

Melanie Rydalch encourages managers to have weekly one-on-one meetings with their direct reports. Managers have access to an online employee profile that allows quick visibility into each individual’s education, certifications, and prior work experience. Her firm uses a career discussion guide in which employees enter short- and long-term goals and development plans. “Each week, there should be some discussion of development around that career discussion guide,” Rydalch said. Other interviewees concurred on the value of weekly one-to-one meetings, with group talent reviews on a quarterly or bi-annual basis, to familiarize the entire management team with its next generation of leaders. Rydalch continued, “We use a nine box grid based on performance and potential to guide our group discussion, which helps us see how we can best invest in each individual’s development.” Practices like these help deliver the trust, management, and development dimensions of employee engagement.

Another best-practice emerging from these interviews is the importance of building bridges between generations in the workplace. This can occur in several ways — involving cross-generational groups in problem-solving, celebrating individual and team successes, and encouraging social and professional relationships to form within the organization. “If you make people feel valued and respected, and reward them for their contributions, you help your employees across every generation to see themselves as connected and part of the organization,” said Hughes.

Millennials in particular expect to blend the social and work aspects of their lives. At the Motley Fool, Keenley has encouraged a flexible working environment. “The focus is on getting your work done rather than when you get the work done. We have a lot of activities, monthly excursions, and happy hours. We have a lunch buddies program where they do lots of different contests and competitions during the work day.” This has led to a strong internal community, as Hughes recommends. The engagement dimensions of work/life balance, connection to mission, and rewards flow from these actions.

By focusing on talent management best-practices like these, organizations take the third step toward engaging even their youngest staff.

Engage talent today who will lead tomorrow

Rydalch has a mantra: “We believe that if we know them, we grow them, we involve them, reward them, then we're going to be able to retain them.” Companies that follow her formula need not fear the challenge of recruiting and integrating younger staff. As this article has shown, taking three specific steps — meeting the needs of individuals, developing leadership skills beginning with frontline managers, and adopting talent management best-practices that execute on the six dimensions — positions a company to deliver the kind of work experience that results in true engagement.

Read how others are managing Millennial employees

As a student training site, leading accounting firm MacKay LLP leverages frequent engagement reviews to provide critical performance feedback for its Gen-Y workers.


Read Part 1: Building a talent pipeline and Part 3: Earning your top talent's loyalty

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