The corporate tides are changing. I joke that the coke-fueled, hyper-masculine corporate world of the 1980s is trying to claw its way back to relevance now that the community-minded, touchy-feely millennial culture has taken hold. In the eighties, leadership meant obnoxious displays of dominance rooted in insecurity. Corporate culture was bleak and miserable, and it needed to change.
We are currently struggling to define what the next era looks like. It’s not just corporate slides and coffee bars; there’s a new ethos that many companies are failing to capture. In an effort to attract qualified candidates, they succumb to the superficial trappings of the “new corporate America.” Millennials can smell bullshit a mile away, so if you’re going to cater meals and have structured playtime, do it for the right reasons.
I’m fortunate to be a millennial in a leadership position. Throughout my career, I’ve had managers who have populated the personality spectrum from micromanaging to indifferent. As a bright and passionate employee, I wanted a strong leader with a vision for the future and a sense of my role in the team’s success. Even these basic ingredients of leadership are hard to come by in today’s workplace. I’ve thought long and hard about the type of leader I want to be for my team, and even the basics aren’t enough.
I can see how people in leadership positions could view the millennial workforce as entitled and high maintenance. In reality, they are confident. They know their value and that they have something to contribute. If leaders foster the right work environment, millennial teams can accomplish amazing things.
Here are a few approaches that have helped me establish a creative and collaborative millennial work environment:
- Foster Extreme Collaboration
Millennials are team players. They know the value of collaborative effort and are easily able to set aside their egos to work together on a project. In a creative industry, it pays to have more people and ideas on a project. We should be talking about ideas on a daily—if not hourly—basis. Over-democratizing the process should not be a concern if there is a clear leader who is responsible for the project’s direction.
Giving team members the opportunity to identify projects of interest helps them translate their experience and make connections between ideas. Creative energy mimics artistic improvisation. They open their minds to association, and from there, the creative possibilities are endless.
- Create an Environment of Non-Judgement
My team feels like a functional family. We are open and honest with one another, and we are invested in each other’s success and development. Though our team has a tiered structure, it feels pretty flat. Everyone’s opinion is worthy of consideration, and maintaining order is simple. In my experience, millennials prefer to self-direct as long as the expectations for their role have been made clear.
My team knows that I’m invested in them and that I don’t judge them for mistakes. We talk through what they can do differently next time, and I offer additional resources to develop their skills. They fear disappointing me, but they know that I will always find a learning opportunity in their mistakes. I understand that this may sound touchy-feely, but my team is a machine. We do excellent work, and we continue to grow and innovate.
- Enculture Boundless Creative Brainstorming
Our bread and butter in PR is creative solutions. We encounter multiple problems a day and have to start thinking about solutions right away. It helps to practice creative brainstorming daily, even if it’s coming up with fixes for an internal issue. Millennials are excellent at brainstorming because they believe they have something to contribute—they aren’t shy about sharing ideas.
The key to fostering brainstorming is to throw perfectionism out the window. As a leader, I do not censor myself because I want everyone to feel comfortable saying what’s on their mind. Of course, not judging helps. We never tease someone for a contribution in a brainstorm; we either grab onto it or move on.
I try to infuse this aspect in most of my meetings and casual conversations in the workplace. The point is to get comfortable being creative together—whether you’re trying to think of new pitch angles or imagining backstories for a character in a commercial.
- Eliminate the Fear of Failure
Millennials have a tendency to be hard on themselves. We are conscientious and want to do good work. We don’t like letting leadership down and obsess over our failures. Without healthy guidance, we can be risk-averse, which is the kiss of death in a creative field. Fear is the biggest roadblock to success.
If my team is afraid to share their ideas, I’ve closed off myself from a wealth of knowledge and unique perspectives. Instead, I encourage my team to share their creative solutions for anything and everything. If they identify an aspect of our operations that could run more smoothly, it doesn’t matter to me if it’s outside their scope of work. If they’re passionate about it, I help them. Through this process, we have rolled out several company-wide initiatives, and my team gets credit for solving the problem. It builds their confidence and project management skills, and it makes our agency better—everyone wins!
- Be Willing to Look at Yourself
Millennials want to be heard when they give feedback. If you aren’t asking your team how you’re doing on a regular basis, you need to start. Listen to what they say and think about how you can show that you’ve taken their feedback to heart.
As a leader, it’s not fair for me to ask my team to push themselves if I’m not willing to do the same. Why should I have more purchase on their development than they have on mine? My team is open about our strengths and weaknesses. My willingness to be vulnerable helps normalize the growth and development process. As a result, my team is always working to improve along with me.
Being a good leader means empowering your team and sharing ownership of the amazing things that you accomplish together. It’s better than any material perk you can offer.
Kelley Heider is the vice president of innovation for SSPR.