Our 2015 summer internship program was a disaster. My company, HireTeamMate/Hiretual, hired one software engineering intern after another — failure after failure — but on paper they seemed perfect for us.
We needed more engineering power to speed up development of some tools to spread our growing brand across the digital world, getting more sign-ups and eyeballs to our then employee referral platform. We hired engineering students from UC Berkeley, Stanford, and MIT who accepted near entry-level engineering salaries. But they quickly lost interest in their projects because our product was just another “job board.” Within a few weeks of their arrival we had only one intern left.
What in the world was going on?
Millennial hiring and management can be a tough nut to crack even for experienced managers, and boy did I learn from our mistakes.
As one millennial managing other millennials I had to figure things out fast, unless we were to become one of the 90% dead startups. Millennials this year became the largest living US generation and make up the largest percentage of the workforce, so basically if we couldn’t retain and engage millennial talent in the long run, we would be screwed.
Three things I learned about my generation
Lesson number one: Talented millennials, especially those with engineering backgrounds from top universities, want their work to be meaningful on a grand scale and we failed to provide them with a powerful reason why our work matters.
“They are always thinking about creating that one app like WhatsApp or Pokemon Go to put a dent in the world and make them billionaires quickly,” said Steven Jiang, CEO and my co-founder in Hiretual. Our culture did not offer enough purpose to support them. The result was a general lack of interest in the work, low employee engagement, negative attitude, and resources lost for nothing to show off.
Lesson number two: Managing inexperienced millennials poses a significant challenge because of our attitude and views toward life and work. The tech culture encourages us to believe in our dreams and if the only thing that stands between dreams and reality is our own hands, then to make it happen.
We overemphasized how meaningful our work was. My co-founders and I are pragmatic idealists, which sometimes makes for great entrepreneurs, but not so great employees management-wise. Even though millennials are twice as likely to have launched businesses compared to boomers, most people, including millennials, are not entrepreneurs. Most millennials struggle to find or own up to our “whys.” Contrast this to our deep need to be inspired by others around us. That’s the great divide of my generation. Look around you, the most popular tech companies like Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram were founded by millennials. They didn’t necessarily have deep sense of purpose back then but found their “whys” as time went on.
Lesson number three: We millennials need constant encouragement and positive feedback from others and especially our bosses. Our work and the culture at work matters to us as if it was a determinant of our self-worth. Our confidence is fueled not as much by individual confidence, but more so by collective confidence. We stress about our work more than any other generation and feel most grateful for “positive interactions with colleagues,” “having a low-stress commute,” “getting a new job,” “being satisfied with an existing job,” “sleeping,” and “relaxing in bed.” Clearly, work is deeply rooted in our lives.
We expect our management to inspire us and help us see the purpose in our work. On the other hand, when those answers don’t come, millennials don’t take ownership of their work and are just doing something because we are told to.
I didn’t know then what to make of all this during that disastrous summer. However, I had hope for my generation — that we’ll struggle through our weaknesses and eventually come out stronger on the other side.
We are knowledge workers
Knowledge workers are playing an increasingly important role in the workforce; millennials are a large part of that group.
The first characteristic of millennials is that we have broad professional knowledge. Teams of millennials are often highly educated and have a more comprehensive way of understanding and learning new things. We tend to bring a unique perspective.
The second characteristic is our strong motivation for pursuing achievement. We have a strong desire for the realization of self-worth and generally pay more attention to the judgements of others. We like to pursue perfect results.
The third characteristic is that the work of millennials is full of innovation and challenges We like our work to be engaging, not simple or repetitive, but rather work that requires us to extend our individual skills and inspires us to reach our potential. In an ever-changing and uncertain system, we like to predict and handle all the problems that come up and finally improve the progress of technology.
The fourth characteristic is our need for a dynamic working environment not blind in authority or hierarchy since we have grasped more professional knowledge, especially core technology. An article in the International Journal of Management suggests that knowledge workers are more loyal to their work than to the enterprise, and we would not believe in any authorities simply because of their specialties or titles.
The fifth characteristic is that millennial work is hard to directly supervise and to measure precisely. Teams of millennials are doing creative work and so it is hard to monitor our progress.
Incentive mechanisms to engage millennial workers
This is what’s required to engage millennials in every aspect. Establish new effective incentive mechanisms: purpose-driven, promotion, and company culture.
A purpose-driven incentive mechanism: Management should make it a priority to maintain close communication with millennials and create attractive job descriptions infused with the “whys.” Change things up with specific purpose-driven performance objectives: “Today, I helped X people recruit better. They will help X people become financially independent and provide for X families.” Improve your performance management process and apply the results of performance evaluations. Employers need to strengthen giving and receiving purpose-driven performance feedback. Tell us why we should care about our work.
Create a promotion incentive mechanism: This can improve employees’ work quality and give them a sense of belonging and identity. Millennials have higher requirements for personal achievement. We are not going to be satisfied with our current role because our peer from college became the CEO of a big tech company. Therefore, to reach our need for development, employers must establish incentive mechanisms for career planning and eventually management. To raise millennial satisfaction and loyalty, help us to understand where we currently stand and what future career we can have with the company. Tie us closely to the company.
The company culture incentive mechanism: Help us fulfill our need for self-respect and encourage our hard-working spirit. Organizational culture impact on millennials is based on three aspects. First, company culture and millennials must share common values and interests of performance. Second, cohesion, shared values and beliefs motivate us to get together and enhance the company’s collective sense of identity and belonging. The third is stimulation; an excellent company culture contributes to a healthy working environment for everyone improving work satisfaction, company pride, and employee initiative.
I came to understand all this in the wake of our summer fiasco of 2015. For the 2016 summer internship, we hired four interns to help us with recruiting, marketing, and engineering. I knew enough of what not to do and was lucky to do all the right things, like one-on-one mentoring, professional and life coaching, spending quality time and otherwise investing in their personal lives. I have learned that managing millennials is about humility and caring a lot. This is not a testament of my own ability but the character of my awesome interns.
Our engineering interns, whom we let develop their own tools, asked for an offer to join us after graduating saying, “You guys are doing something real life. I want in.”
Serena, our marketing intern did an excellent job promoting our tool and took on all aspects of customer service. One of our awesome beta partners told me, “I would have never known that Serena is an intern if you hadn’t told me… She made me feel very comfortable. Highest recommendations.” Needless to say, I am very proud of our interns.
Here’s to you interns! What a great end to the summer!