ATD Day 2 – Europe, Unicorns, and the Great Millennials Debate
Day two at the Georgia World Congress Centre and we’re back bright and early – despite the rain – for another day of exhibiting.
Having enthusiastically embraced the European networking event laid on by ATD on Monday night, we were perhaps surprisingly bright-eyed and bushy tailed. The same can’t be said for our expo neighbours, but we get the sense it’s as much about the social side of things here as anything else.
Interestingly, the European night had also furnished us with the early announcement that the ATD show will be coming to Amsterdam this December – something that certainly bucks the trend as until now ATD has never taken place in Europe.
We started the day with a steady stream of conversations, demos and general talk with visitors about Minds-i, as well as making one very excited woman’s day by presenting her with her unicorn prize from the day before.
At 1pm, I made my way up to one of the smaller theatres for a session I had circled in the event programme earlier that day. It was boldly entitled: ‘Motivating Millennials’: New Research into Unlocking their passions.
As sessions titles go, this one is a little like a red rag to a bull.
It’s immediately obvious that the speaker (Christopher Kendrick) is not a Millennial. The first thing he does is ask us how many of us consider ourselves to be Millennials. There are a lot of people who raise their hands. “You can fact check me as we go along as much as you like”, he laughs – but it’s not clear whether this is something he anticipates is actually going to happen.
I have to be honest; I’ve arrived here ready to hate this session. The pervading irony of older people evangelising about the needs and wants of the so-called Millennial generation seems to escape the majority of folks who typically attend talks like these. I’ve said it before – I have no desire to be ageist. Being a woman, I know only too well what it feels like to be on the receiving end of inherent prejudices or to be inadvertently side-lined in the bigger picture of a wider debate; so it should be said that in this case, a rejection of generationally-imposed ideas does not also mean a rejection of the older generations full stop.
Christopher is charismatic, loud, and obviously at home in front of a crowd. He’s from a company called The Culture Works – a conservatively sized provider of engagement, talent development and leadership training. He later jokes to me that despite the inclusive nature of their mantras, the business is currently exclusively made up of a male workforce.
It seems the organisation is behind a number of extremely successful publications that centre around the findings of extensive surveys into people’s habits – specifically their motivations, prejudices and wider behaviours. Having achieved New York Times Top 100 Bestseller status with a string of previous books, their latest piece lends its title to the name of this very session.
“We started to notice that some people were more engaged than others”, he says of the basis of this latest book, “and at the bottom of it, what set those people apart from their colleagues was that they were doing something at work that they really enjoyed.” As it happens, this observation forms the basis of much of what is to come in this session – which is important because despite the jokey start to it all, Christopher’s unique flavour of inter-generational bridge-building is significantly more palatable to a cynical twenty-something than (in my view) the majority of his contemporaries.
“I actually want to show you something”, he continues, “I’m gonna show you three videos in this session, and the first is from a YouTuber called Micah Taylor.”
I’m going to share this here, because a description – however comprehensive – probably won’t do it justice:
Whether or not you fall into the bracket of those of us born between 1982 and 2000, the clip is undeniably quite funny. Chuckles of appreciation ripple through the room as this plays out, and Christopher follows this with what feel like a sensitive nod to why if you do fit into the ‘Millennial’ bracket, it could be a little insulting.
“We’re laughing because we maybe recognise some of those things as being true,” he says – (let’s just say the bit about selfies and yoga pants rings a bell) – “but actually Micah is one of those people who is sending up these generalisations and stereotypes that have cropped up around the ‘Millennial’ label in recent years. The backlash against Millennials is starting to get a backlash, if you will – and you can laugh about it, but I think we’re genuinely starting to realise that we’re in danger of tarring an entire generation of young people with the same brush when we seek to understand them in these basic, one-dimensional terms”.
“Let’s look at the facts, we know from all the research we’ve done – (it transpires this is a study of 25,000 young people in the past year) – that things are changing, just as they have done in every generation previously. We know that compared to our Gen X-ers or Baby Boomers that this generation are set to have something like 17 different jobs in their lifetimes. That means job-hopping every two to three years, and its markedly different to the pattern of what we’ve seen in generations before.”
“I was looking for something relevant and snappy in the news lately that I could bring to this session to tell you all about”, he says, “and you know what I found? Literally the perfect quote in Forbes – it said, ‘at the base of it all, your criticism of Millennials just make you look old’. And it’s so right. We can’t ignore that in the US alone, this Millennial generation is the biggest ever – accounting for 92 million people, and over 25% of the total US population. The challenge of adapting our workplaces to suit and accommodate and include these people is not going away. We have a choice – we can change or we can extinct.”
What are Millennials? The definitive list, according to The Culture Works:
- They don’t believe in being shackled to tradition or location
- They don’t believe in the inherent value of face time
- They believe in learning, not pieces of paper
- They believe in learning from someone else’s experience
- They believe in life, not work-life balance
“What we’re seeing here is essentially a set of values,” says Christopher of his list, “we’re looking at motivators – things that underpin and explain the more superficial observations about this set of people. In truth,” he continues, “we can take some of the pervading stereotypes of young people being selfish, or tech-obsessed, and interrogate these back to a root in a specific value set that actually says, a person displays a certain set of behaviours because their unique blend of motivators looks a certain way.”
As the session progresses, Christopher is no longer talking about young people. “In talent development of any kind, what we’re really interested in is understanding what motivates people”, he says. “It’s an absolutely critical part in any manager or leader successfully and strategically planning for the future of an organisation with his or her people. If we understand what motivates people to do what they do, then what we’ve got is a golden ticket when it comes to getting the best out of those people; knowing how to develop them, and being able to support those people to be better not only for their organisation, but also for themselves.”
Christopher tells us that from The Culture Works’ extensive assessment and survey-based research over ten years – and an impressive 850,000 people – they have distilled these motivators into a set of 25 distinct factors:
You’ll notice the list is colour coded. He goes on to explain that these factors fit into related groups, which when consolidated account for 5 common groupings of traits in people. These groups are as follows:
- Reward Driven
There follows an explanation of what each of these labels represents: aggregations of traits such as autonomy, recognition, praise, money and so on – each carefully mapped out to explain the visible nature of any given person. Apparently, though, there’s yet another level to this – as we can be more than one thing. Christopher talks about the unique combinations of motivators that give rise to exceptional talent – Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and other tech moguls all referenced as examples of people with perhaps seemingly incongruous traits and motivators who given the right environment have leveraged this to produce something truly astonishing. The lesson here is not to fall into the trap that just because someone is primarily a ‘Caregiver’, for example, that they’re necessarily overly sensitive or emotional. Or that just because someone is Reward Driven that they are shallow and money driven above all else.
“Knowing your people is key”, Christopher asserts. “It’s true that when we look at these groups of motivators, we can identify certain trends that crop up more commonly within specific demographics – but as you might imagine, these too can change over time. We might start as being driven by social factors, recognition and reward, but over time these give way to purpose, ownership and the desire to develop others.”
The crux of these observations is that Christopher is advocating a training model that requires any and everybody within an organisation to be afforded the courtesy of being understood. And he means deeply. If we’re to effectively communicate with, or seek to develop, retain and motivate our people, we need to understand what makes them tick.
To gather his session towards a conclusion, Christopher then shows us a clip from the 2009 movie, The Blind Side. It’s the scene where the coach is shouting at protagonist Michael about his football technique. The coach continues to shout, but Michael doesn’t seem to be responding to what’s being said. So, having watched from the sidelines, his adoptive mother played by Sandra Bullock – dressed in her little miniskirt and ‘mom-shades’ for maximum effect – marches over to him on the field and starts to take coaching into her own hands. Rather than shouting anything, she takes him back to a past experience where he showed passion, emotion and drive, and proceeds to relate that experience to the situation he’s currently in. She appeals to his emotional side, and sensitively yet humorously guides him into a place of action. Needless to say when she returns to the sidelines, Michael flattens the opposition.
I get what Christopher is trying to show us. Coaching, training – and indeed connection – are only possible from a place of understanding. In this case, the session has moved away from talking exclusively about young people, and instead strives to illustrate that whatever labels we might assign to groups of people within our organisations, we must seek to understand what makes them tick.
Whilst some of things that Christopher said in this session might raise an eyebrow amongst those of us feeling a little testy (are man buns really synonymous with Millennials? Or have we strayed into ‘hipster’ territory here?), his point is well-intentioned. Whether everyone in the room gets it or not, what Christopher has done here is begin to subvert and challenge the ways in which speakers, managers and the general populous alike have started to ringfence and label a core group of people. “At the end of the day,” he says, “as long as we think of Millennials as ‘Millennials’, we will lose.”
“Not all our Millennials are about man buns and artisan coffee. We cannot simply be content with categorising our Millennials anymore. The fact is that until we start talking to them and getting to know them in our own organisations, we don’t know what they are.”
For my part I really hope to catch up with Chris again (his business card says Chris, so I’m going to drop the formalities.) He tells me after the session that their work in the UK is for the moment limited, although as he’s heard it, the UK’s specific breed of Millennials is really “something else”. I wrote my name and details on the back of a card he gave me, and told him I’d send him this blog. So Chris, if you’re reading this, thanks for not just being like every other L&D professional who thinks they get the younger generation.