June 23, 2010

Engaging the Millennials

The Millennial generation — those offspring of the baby boomers — are not short on the “three D’s”: dedication, drive, and delivery.

Young adults today study harder and more often, engage in more community service, participate in greater numbers of extracurricular activities, and hold a more optimistic outlook on the future than any other generation in modern history.  Lauded by parents and pundits alike as beacons of youthful optimism that shine in uncertain economic times, these future leaders are eager for leadership opportunities and thirsty to impress.

Having grown up on Twitter and Facebook, today’s youth respect their communities and recognize the importance of staying engaged.  As the 2008 elections showed, Millennials proved they could walk the walk and flocked to the voting polls, many for the first time.  Moreover, Millennials appear to have a high moral compass.   Case in point: youth from around the nation responded to the earthquake disaster in Haiti with food drives led on Facebook, service trips, and fundraising efforts via email campaigns.  A number of my HBS students embarked on trips themselves to lend a hand in subsequent months, writing blogs and sharing their experience with others back home.

Millennials seem eager to stay in touch, any way they can, double-timing on iPads and Smartphones. They have grown up in a culture where the defining theme is “velocity,” both in terms of the rate of change and the pace of information.  Consumer and behavioral trends shift monthly, technology evolves constantly, and information flows with sometimes overwhelming abandon, saturating Millennials with 24/7 political newsfeeds and social networks. 

This hyper connectivity certainly has many useful purposes — workplace productivity, community engagement, and civic mindedness, among others.  But does it come at a price?

Despite their collective activity level and propensity for community engagement, this generation may be at risk of becoming too accustomed to constant exposure, of becoming too quick to say: “Got it – on to the next one.”  In charging ahead, are Millennials failing to take time to focus and reflect?  Are they so caught up in keeping up that they will ignore vital real-life lessons that are needed to gain the wisdom to stay pointed toward their True North?

Over the next decade, Millennials will be asked to step into important leadership roles and take part in helping to resolve the complex issues facing the U.S., and the globe.  As Timothy Egan notes in last week’s NY Times, they are the ones who will have to live with the consequences of actions taken today.  From foreign policy to the environment to international economic issues, Millennials will need to adopt a long-term sustainable view.  Who wants to create a startup, invent a new product, serve in politics, or generate a new business model 20 years if our society is selfish, partisan, and dysfunctional?

To develop the insights and the intuition required to address these daunting hurdles with experienced perspectives and informed temperaments, Millennials must commit to their long-term leadership development.  Such a commitment will prepare them for the more daunting challenges that will inevitably come their way.  Developing the qualities of emotional intelligence like self-awareness, introspection, empathy, and empowerment will determine their future success, but this requires the time and commitment to reflection and introspection.

Here are some of my ideas on how to develop these qualities:

  1. For my family and me the most important step we have taken is to meditate daily.  Back in 1975, my wife dragged me to a meditation retreat “kicking and screaming,” and I have meditated twenty minutes twice a day ever since. My sons – Jeff, a business executive with Novartis, and Jon, a head-and-neck surgeon – both meditate regularly.  Meditation has enabled me to find calm, creativity, and clarity, in spite of leading a high-stress life.
  2. A second approach is to take time for yourself to reflect.  There are many ways to do this – through prayer, journaling, jogging, yoga, or just sitting quietly.  The important thing here is to turn off all the instant communications and just be with yourself.
  3. A very different approach involves having a leadership development group (LDG) – six to eight people with whom you meet regularly.  Since 1975, I have been part of group of guys that meets weekly to discuss the important issues of life and to share our challenges and joys.  My wife and I are also part of a couples group that has met monthly since 1983.  These two groups have been a godsend in my life, providing support in difficult times, deeply honest feedback, and wisdom that have helped me in so many ways.
  4. A fourth idea is to get involved in service to your community, being engaged with diverse groups of people whose life experiences are entirely different from your own.  Community service, especially in leading volunteers, is an excellent way to develop skills like empowering others to lead.  You learn a great deal about yourself through helping others and understanding their perspectives about life. Service opens you up to developing compassion and empathy for others, especially those less fortunate that you. 

It is important to build habits and practices like these into your daily life at a relatively young age. You may be surprised at how you stick with them for decades.  At first, you may feel like you don’t have time for them.  That was my reaction, but now I realize that these practices make me much more efficient in using my time, more compassionate in dealing with other people, and ultimately more effective in leadership roles.  Most important of all, I feel better about myself and my life.

What’s not to like about that?  It’s the best way I know to stay on the course of your True North.