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The Leadership Problem

Leadership confounds even the best managers. At this point, most hiring managers have run into the “millennial problem”. Simon Sinek had a great talk on Inside Quest recently in which he discussed the psychology behind millennials’ thinking and why this is becoming such a challenge for managers:

“We want to work in a place with purpose, we want to make an impact, we want free food and bean bags. And so, somebody articulates some sort of purpose, there’s lots of free food and there’s bean bags and yet for some reason they’re still not happy.”

Most of our new hires are primarily placed in sales roles, which as we all know, have a high turnover rate to begin with. Once you add the “millennial problem” to the equation, you run through employees much faster.

This has been discussed extensively over the past few years, but for some reason managers and CEOs still don’t fully understand the problem and there seems to be no solution in sight. The video above does a good job of describing the problem. Forty-two percent of millennials change jobs every one to three years [source], which is an astoundingly high rate. The issue further compounds when you onboard these people into sales-based roles that already have high turnover.

When millennials are asked what the issues are and how we can start to retain them, they say things like:

  • We want to work in a place with purpose
  • We want to make an impact
  • We want free food
  • We want bean bag chairs

I know this is trivializing the issue, but the underlying fact is that millennials don’t know what they want. All they know is:

  • Their boss knows they’re replicable.
  • They know they’re replaceable.
  • They believe they’re better than this and they know they should be valued
  • Most importantly – they know that when things go wrong, their entire livelihood will be sacrificed long before any manager takes even the slightest pay cut.

Is it any wonder that they jump from job to job? They do this because a) they don’t feel valued, safe and secure in the job, and b) because they don’t feel like they can realize any sort of ambition or achieve any self-actualization within the organization.

It’s true that millennials are making these issues more apparent than previous generations, but these issues have always plagued organizations. The difference is that 30 years ago, your average 22-year-old already had two kids and couldn’t afford to leave the job they hated so they stuck around.

We all know millennials are waiting longer to move out, buy cars and start families, so there isn’t the same level of financial pressure to stay at the same job forever. Compound this with the prevalence of social media and you have a catastrophic problem in your organization.

As a 22-year-old, I know firsthand how this generation excels at making their lives look really, really good on social media. People get so caught up in looking at everyone else’s happiness on Facebook or Instagram and feel like they should really have that, too. That’s why they look elsewhere.

If we look to the CEOs who have really inspired us and brought together large numbers of people to accomplish a goal – people like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Brin – they all have certain things in common that have changed the way the world works.

No one has any doubt that any of these individuals would rather die than let their organizations fail and that includes the people there. The late Steve Jobs felt this way, too.

Because of this, we follow them. And don’t get me wrong – I know Musk isn’t exactly nice and easygoing when there’s a problem that needs to be fixed, and neither was Jobs, but that’s not the point. The issue isn’t the criticism; the issue is that the companies and the goals that they all strive towards together are far more important than the financial payoff for the CEO.

Not one of those companies was started so someone could get rich and we all know that. Each one made many people extraordinarily wealthy, but that was a secondary result of achieving the goal that everyone worked toward so vigorously. These people play an extremely long-term game that isn’t for their own benefit; it’s for everyone’s benefit.

Let’s look at this from a different angle – why do so many people passionately hate most CEOs and executives? Remember in 2008 when General Motors executives got their huge bailouts and flew in on private jets?  This was a clear statement that they valued themselves a) more than the company (were unwilling to sacrifice their comfort to save money), and b) they valued themselves more than the rest of the people living in the United States who were now stuck with the tab.

Martin Shkreli was the most hated man in America for a short time because he unapologetically showed us that he cared more about his company profits than about his customers’ lives.

Leadership isn’t the same as having authority – and that needs to be clearly understood right now. Most employees do what they’re told because their managers will fire them if they don’t. Very few employees will go above and beyond because they value the person or company giving the orders.

There are two types of executives:

I know that if I take care of my people and my company there will be profit at the end of the day. That could be far in the future, but it’s worth it.

Looking at this balance sheet, we should increase profits so our share price increases. Cut, cut, cut.

I’ve worked with and for both types of executives and the fundamental concept that I want to drive home to you right now, is to play a long-term game.

What would happen if a CEO of any company took a pay cut during tough times to keep as many of his employees as possible? The CEO would be celebrated as a hero and the employees he saved would be willing to walk on broken glass for the business. Ultimately, this will result in your company having a much more engaged workforce that works harder for you. Besides that, the headlines will be much more favorable.

We don’t see this because it looks bad to boards and shareholders and in the annual reports.

Here’s another video, also from Simon Sinek, talking about some organizations that he’s seen following these concepts.

“Why did you do it? Because they would have done it for me.”

In my own company, I’ve learned that by always being the guy who props my employees up, offers them responsibility and always defends them, even to those who have the power to take my job away, is a guaranteed way to onboard people who trust you and who will happily offer you their blood, sweat and tears.

One quick note in closing: if you decide that you’re going to be a leader and not a boss, you need to approach this from a place of honesty. There is nothing worse than an employer who puts on the façade of caring for their employees but is actually fronting for selfish reasons.

Your people will figure it out sooner or later and when they do, both you and your company will suffer. At least there’s integrity in being unapologetically uncaring for your workforce; there is no integrity at all if it’s all just an act.

Thoughts? Leave a comment below and don’t forget to share!