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Millennials held back by bosses' lack of vision

Millennials, Gen Y, Post-80s – regardless of how they are labelled, they both demand and expect a lot from businesses and government, especially compared to previous generations. They also believe organisations are not doing enough to foster innovative thinking, according to the latest Deloitte Millennial Survey.

The third of Deloitte’s annual survey of millennials – which it describes as workers born from January 1983 onwards – brings to the fore the significant challenges facing business leaders in trying to manage millennials’ high expectations. It is based on more than 7,800 online interviews of college-educated, fully employed millennials from 28 countries.

An overwhelming 78 per cent of those surveyed voiced a preference for working for companies that support innovation. But most encounter a host of barriers, such as management attitude (63 per cent), operational structures and procedures (61 per cent), and employee skills, attitudes and lack of diversity (39 per cent).

Chaly Mah, CEO of Deloitte Asia Pacific, says millennials view “a desirable business as no longer one dictated only by financial success, but one that is recognised for fostering innovation, has the ability to develop future leaders, and that delivers positive impact on the communities in which they operate. Innovation and ideas must come from multiple places within an organisation, not just from management.”

He adds that at Deloitte, innovation comes from the company’s people working in the field. “We have many millennials who continuously look for innovative and different ways of doing things in their daily work routine. Our approach is to bring these ideas out from the edge of our organisation, back to the core, and vice-versa.”

He explains that one way a company can overcome stagnant attitudes and lack of vision is to do a better a job of crowd-sourcing ideas. Another is to developing innovative ideas and applying them to all facets of a business – not just to management circles.

Communication is also vital in deploying innovation back out into the field, he says. “Employees want to know that their ideas are taken seriously. Even if their idea is not selected for further development, if they understand the process – and related selection criteria – they will be more likely to contribute next time,” he says.

Organisations seeking to enhance their innovative reputation and be more attractive to prospective employees should do a better job of seeking out innovation at all levels and decentralising the process, he adds. This accelerates, rather than impedes, innovation. He recommends that companies aiming to be known as innovation leaders be more open to taking risks and create an environment that allows staff to do so.

Some organisations are already doing this by educating their line managers to understand the divergent demands of millennials. Florence Chow, head of group HR at PCCW, explains the importance of taking such an approach. “We tell managers to put themselves into [the millennials’] shoes to understand them, because these people are our future leaders. We rely on them to grow our business,” she says.

Management trainees at PCCW are encouraged to build their networks and be proactive and innovative. “We tell them not to be complacent and to always think of new ways to improve a process,” Chow says. “They should get to know their customers well, because everything starts and ends with them.”

Shifting the focus to the mainland, Deloitte’s study showed millennials there relying on the government as the main source of future innovative solutions – unlike their global peers who see such solutions coming more from businesses.

Mah combines the insights with the results of a 2013 survey by research and consultancy firm Universum, which found that 15 of the top 30 companies considered as ideal employers by Chinese business students were large, state-owned enterprises. “China is in a unique position when compared to most other countries globally,” he says. “You won’t find the typical multinationals in the top three in those rankings. Based on the survey, the most admired businesses in China are state-owned enterprises which are perceived as an extension of the government.”

Millennials in China have a much more positive assessment of business behaviour than their counterparts in other countries. A total of 78 per cent of Chinese millennials surveyed by Deloitte believe that businesses generally behave ethically, compared to the global average of 54 per cent. Meanwhile, 83 per cent said that they trust their leaders to be committed to helping to improve society, compared to a global average of 56 per cent.

“If we look at it from a cultural perspective, doing business in China and many other parts of Asia is about cultivating and maintaining relationships built on a foundation of trust. The view that businesses engage in an ethical manner is congruent to trust and relation-based business culture, and may in part explain the positive assessment of business behaviour in China,” Mah says.

Mah stresses the tendency of Asian business culture to be more hierarchical than other parts of the world. “In that sense, leadership roles are seen to extend beyond the realm of business into wider society,” he says. “The findings may tell us more about millennials’ perceptions of ideal businesses and leaders, informed by culture.