Like it or not, millennials—sometimes stereotypically considered entitled, lazy and overly emotional—are the future of our military, and that may be a good thing.
It is time to understand them. Considering the average age of enlisted members was 27 and the average age of officers was 34½ as of 2015, millennials are moving into junior leadership positions where they are shaping the Army’s values, ethics and organizational functions.
Research into millennial generation expectations reveals traits, desires, work ethic and beliefs that are desirable in military organizations—and some that aren’t.
Larry Alton, a business consultant who focuses on workforce changes, wrote in a December 2017 Forbes column, “Millennial leaders will prioritize values, ethics, flexibility, and feedback, and while they will likely be more timid than previous generations, they may also hold stronger convictions.” His statement sounds a lot like what the Army values in military leaders, but there are differences.
Some sociologists characterize millennials as needing to be deeply involved in every aspect of the organization from top to bottom, and this can strain the military unit. If military leaders are honest with themselves, current and previous generations have always looked at the organization from bottom to top. The difference with millennials, according to Jason Wingard, a leadership development and human capital management expert who is dean of Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies, is “while they are willing to work hard, they also require access to high-level information about, for example, strategy. They want effective communication to understand how their role, as small as it may be, funnels into the larger organizational strategy.”
Wingard made these observations in a 2015 address while he was Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s chief learning officer, adding, “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 an effective, fun, engaging work environment.”
The issue is whether the military can take the time to outline every detail of the “why” or ensure mechanisms are in place to guarantee these members are having fun. The military needs leaders who are deeply engaged in the mission, but it also needs leaders who can understand their role and where they plug into the organization because they are intrinsically motivated. The military requires leaders who can inspire others, not leaders who demand to be inspired.
Goldman Sachs, the New York-headquartered global investment bank and financial services company, has focused on millennial recruiting and retention. The firm is focused on attracting millennial talent through the demonstration of dynamic leadership opportunities and an attractive work culture, in a manner that motivates them to remain with the organization. It is engaged in a war for talent because millennials are walking away. Many companies have identified different ways to incorporate millennials and grow them into leadership roles in their organizations.
The military could do the same by emphasizing the purpose and favorable organizational culture of the services. Although many mid-senior-level military leaders, who have served in any capacity, may find humor and a degree of naïveté in millennials seeking a job where everyone is happy, who would not say a favorable command climate fosters an environment that encourages trust?
The services have gone to great lengths over the years to remove toxic leaders from the ranks in order to encourage trust and confidence. Toxic leaders, and to some extent, absent leaders, lack a moral philosophy and often overlook values like equality, empathy and humanism. A zero-tolerance policy approach to toxic leadership, an increased emphasis within the professional military education system on positive leadership styles, and the impending overhaul of outdated promotion and command slating systems implies the military will continue to evolve in ways that are enticing to the millennial generation.
Simply put, military leaders must impress and inspire their subordinates because millennials are more inclined to leave their jobs more readily than their predecessors if their leaders do not meet their standards.
Ethics and Trust
Integrity is another important organizational element for a generation that lists ethics and trust as key values they look for in a workplace. This aligns with the foundation of any U.S. military organization. If one subscribes to the idea that the military is a profession because it shares the same characteristics as the fields of law and medicine, such as highly specialized schooling, indoctrination, self-learning and self-governing, then professionals earn the trust of each other and their associates through continuous ethical behavior.
Millennials identify that they desire to be empowered by their leadership with the trust and freedom to account for themselves. This assertion sounds oddly like the Army’s definition of the Mission Command philosophy: “The exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations.”
Flexibility within an organization is also valued by millennials. They seek a place with opportunities and a flat, integrated structure that is easily navigated. As subordinates, they dislike the idea of having to navigate through multiple layers of leadership to do their job. As leaders, they value an organization where movement within the organization does not merely go “up the ladder.” A flat management structure facilitates communication and career development upward and laterally.
While this may seem like a structure that is not conducive to the military hierarchy, it is important to note that this philosophy works amazingly well within the special operations community, where inputs at every level are valued and there are few obstacles preventing a subject-matter expert of any grade from being heard at the highest level.
How does an organization create the conditions to enable this type of involved, integrated and flat flexibility? If we reach way back into our military history, before the introduction of the computer, many mid-senior-level military leaders can remember a time when leaders were more involved with their subordinates. It seems that millennials appreciate seeing their leaders and having access to them so they can engage in ideas and flat communication, freely share ideas and perspectives, and seek candid career advice in less formal scheduled settings.
Technology Enables Flexibility
Flexibility can mean many things, but this connected generation is looking at utilizing technology to enable flexibility. In a 2018 article in the Journal of Property Management, Texas real estate executive Blaire Hoffman wrote, “Technology today means it is possible to work essentially anywhere that has an internet connection, so many millennials expect at least some level of flexibility when it comes to their employers.” This isn’t feasible for every situation, especially military duties, but millennials expect organizations to be flexible enough to allow them to dictate their schedules occasionally. If they can’t, they’ll look for another job that gives them a more fluid schedule and some amount of remote work.
Having a job with mentoring, counseling and regular feedback also is important to millennials. While coaching seems to fall in line with current policy on subordinate military development, this is arguably the most divergent category when it comes to values, ethics, flexibility and coaching. Millennials value ongoing conversations as opposed to the traditional manner in which military leaders counsel their subordinates. It is the way millennials communicate—texting, tweeting and FaceTime—and those are important in real time and are continuous.
Millennials require access to mentors and leaders who can coach them as people and subordinates, and who can assist them in developing their strengths. Gallup reports that millennials are motivated by dialogue with leaders who assist them in honing their strengths as opposed to improving their weaknesses. Gallup goes on to make the point that organizations should not ignore a subordinate’s weakness, but rather minimize mentoring that focuses on weaknesses and maximize coaching to harness strengths.
Mentoring Is Key
Millennials seek continual and frequent mentoring and without it, may look for another organization that provides this essential organizational behavior. Sun Microsystems recognized this phenomenon and realized that millennial employees who received deliberate mentoring had a 23 percent higher retention rate than those who did not. Millennials want to know how they are doing, where they plug into the organization and want to feel like they are being coached, not just bossed around.
These mentoring sessions include another critical piece of the millennial puzzle: feedback. Frequent feedback has been determined to be such a crucial factor in millennial leader development that Camilion Solutions, a San Jose, Calif.-based software company, has implemented an innovative approach to feedback. It provides quarterly reviews along with an online system to give employees quick access to frequent feedback. To complement this innovation, Camilion limited the online portion to only 140 characters. Sound familiar? The 140-character limit means that while the input can be quick, it also has to be deliberate and well-thought-out. Simply put, millennials want more frequent access to leaders rather than the current military practice of impersonal and formal quarterly counseling sessions.
Can the military keep up with the civilian sector with some of these creative initiatives to develop and keep millennial leaders? Americans and DoD take great pride in transforming and adapting to meet the hybrid threats that face the United States. Arguably, no single institution is more dynamic, flexible, evolutionary and modernized than the military. So how does the U.S. military adapt to ensure it is retaining millennial talent and guaranteeing they are prepared to assume greater responsibilities?
Given the preponderance of research and study, it is evident that the military must adapt its tactics, techniques and procedures to prepare millennials for leadership. The first and most important thing to keep in mind is that if the military does not adapt, it will continue to see a decrease in the defense talent pool and a loss of continuity and expertise in critical career fields.