SPECIAL REPORT: Millennials at Work

If you want to know what they really think about workplace issues today, don’t ask just any Millennial: Find out what the high achievers have to say.

By Dennis Boone

    When Ingram’s presented its first 20 in Their Twenties awards back in 2008, the leading edge of the Millennial generation was swimming right in the middle of that candidate pool, at roughly 25 years old. Looking back, we didn’t see a generational divide coming, but as we look ahead to our 10th class of honorees in 2017, there’s ample evidence that America—more specifically, American business—is rethinking how the concept of generations impacts operations, productivity, teamwork and just about any other facet of running an organization.

    It’s been about three years since the youngest members of Generation X exhausted their eligibility for consideration in 20 in Their Twenties. Another 15 years will pass before the last Millennials do the same. And since the younger cohort has a lock on these awards for at least a decade to come, we thought it might be a good idea to hear more from them about what drives them, inspires them, motivates them and, frankly, irritates them about work life, how we define success as a society or how they view work-life balances in an era of 24/7 digital connections.

    So we invited this year’s honorees to Ingram’s on Nov. 18 for a candid conversation about those topics and more. What we learned from them was illuminating, but a few things stood out: They certainly are nothing like the whining caricatures of Millennials you might see on a Saturday Night Live skit. They want their work to be meaningful. And above all, they want to succeed, even if their definition of success doesn’t precisely match that of a previous generation.

A Generational Self-Appraisal

    Blake Epstein of Bright Forest Media took the kickoff question about what Millennials truly want, and ran with the ball. While many in his age cohort are still trying to figure out what they want to do in life, “I think all of us here are unique in the sense that we’ve set goals, we’ve achieved those goals and obviously it’s paying off for us,” he said. Interestingly, he noted many of those at the table first entered the job market just after the onset of the Great Recession in 2007. “So we all were entering when it was the top of the crash, no one was hiring, and I think that might have fueled some of our entrepreneurial spirit.”

    John A. Marshall Co.’s Zack Donnelly pointed out that by 2020, Millennials will account for half of the U.S. work force, which portends a change in the way businesses get things done. “Our generation, we tend to work in groups and teams in ways that, say, the Baby Boomers did not. They were kind of more used to heads down, working by themselves and knocking out goals individually.” Fresher approaches to achieve organizational goals, he said, can follow from that changing dynamic.

    Brandon Laughridge of PolicyZip said he didn’t spend much time thinking about his own generation. “I spend a lot of time thinking about Baby Boomers. That’s the generation I’m excited about. I don’t know that I have any genius platitudes about Millennials, to be honest. I’m a little bit of a pessimist but I always wonder, does every generation get this rap?”

    CBRE’s Russell Propp noted the way businesses are moving to create work spaces that leverage the interests and abilities of Millennials, but cautioned against generalizations. “We also have a lot of discussions about why it’s important not to focus so much on Millennials, because not all Millennials are the same,” he said. Nonetheless, it’s also true that young workers today “don’t have to work 8 to 5 to get nearly as much accomplished as previous generations. I get just as much accomplished in 8-4, 8-3, because I can answer emails when I get home if I want to. If I’m sitting bored somewhere, I have a phone, I can get work done, and that’s a big thing for a lot of us.”

    For Mattie Crossland of LANE4 Property Group, the retail-centric nature of her work in development requires daily discussions grounded in the generational differences. “Our jobs every day are to forecast retail sales, forecast buildings, new developments and those are all being designed right now around the Millennials.” But oft-repeated criticisms that Millennials are the renting generation, or a group comfortable with taking the easy way out, she said, are unfounded.

    Blake Brock of Condado Group said he “never minded the tag Millennial because it kind of puts a chip on my shoulder. It gives me something to prove every day. My guess is that’s part of the reason why we’re all in this room, because we’re consistently having to prove everyone else wrong.”

    “Whether you’re a Baby Boomer or a Millennial, you still have to hustle to be successful and I think that’s why probably all of us are in this room,” said Ben Anderson of CBIZ.

    Black & Veatch’s Stephen Stinger lamented stereotypes of Millennials as lazy and willing to leave the country worse than they found it, but “I think we have the potential to be the greatest generation, just because of what technology is available to us.” No previous generation, he noted, grew up with an Internet. “The world is flat now, pretty much, there’s nowhere we can’t reach, and I think we have a lot of possibilities.”


1. Millennials, said Julianne Smith Mullane often bring their “authentic selves” to work, part of a shifting change in attitudes about the role of career in workers’ lives. | 2 Courtney Bond cited the understanding that young workers have regarding technology and productivity. | 3. Andrew Wank sees Millennials as more willing to challenge the status quo, at work or outside of it. 4. Russell Propp talked about the willingness of younger workers to operate in collaborative settings.

    Courtney Bond of Cerner concurred, and noted that if any generation needed to understand the importance of improving productivity, it might be the older Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers in the ranks of physicians she counsels about adopting healthcare information technology. That can present barriers, she noted, when physicians in their 50s and 60s have to deal with someone who’s 28 years old teaching them how to use an app on their smartphone. “Sometimes, I kid you not, I’ve had people take the mouse and put it on the computer screen, not knowing how to even use a computer, let alone teaching them how to use a smartphone for the first time,” she said.

    Julianne Smith Mullane cited a generally accepted Millennial attribute—switching jobs—as something that can be a positive when it means taking a new job within the same organization. “In the true Millennial fashion, I am switching gears inside Deloitte,” she said, from working on big hospital divestitures and acquisitions to working with internal customers in a managerial capacity. “I embrace being a Millennial, much like other labels that have been put on me in my career, whether it’s a young person having to credentialize themselves for a seat at the table with CFOs, whether it be a female or other labels that are put upon you,” she said.
“I love that; I value instant gratification. I like having things on demand, so all those things that can be looked at negatively, I look at them in a positive light.”

    Thomas Kershisnik of Five Elms Capital sees himself as part of a vocal generation, one unafraid to speak out about things that Millennials don’t like. “That might come across as us being lazy and not willing to work,” he said, “but I think a lot of people  around this table would agree that we’re out in positions where you’re forced to grow up in a job that you like, you excel very quickly and I think you’ll see that it might just take longer for individuals to find their niche.”

    For blooom’s Andrew Wank, being a Millennial is “an opportunity to look at the status quo, look at what America’s done in the past and challenge it a little bit. I think we’re the first generation pretty OK with going against the game.” As a generation, he said, “we’re used to an on-demand 24/7 work/life balance and I think some companies are ready for it and some aren’t.” Those that are, he said, will be winners.

    Jeff Huggins of Inside Ventures cited the importance of clear goals to motivate employees, something that applies to Millennials in particular. After all, their exposure to video-game scoring was ingrained at an early age. “I think you’re going to see more and more companies focus and hone in on that and realize that as long as you give them something to work toward, they’ll work towards it, but it needs to be very specific, they need to know what they’re doing. A lot of us grew up playing video games or taking a test online, and in your college courses, we knew right afterwards how we performed. Other generations didn’t get much of that immediate feedback, and I think that’s where the immediate gratification comes from.”


1. Catalina Campos said she embraced the challenges of being a Hispanic and a woman in a sector dominated by men, construction. | 2. Stephen Stinger pointed out that even within the Millennial generation, significant differences are showing up between the oldest and youngest. | 3. Companies would do well to rethink the levels of structure they provide for young workers, said Lauren Roth. | 4. Thomas Kershisnik believes Millennials are more willing to speak out on things that concern them.

    Holmes Murphy’s Lauren Roth said that her experience with corporate clients shows that in terms of workplace dynamics, “the answer is that less structure is more. I think that Millennials really thrive in an environment where they can be flexible and use their adaptability to their advantage, rather than fitting inside a mold that a lot of people viewed as successful in the past.”

    Being Hispanic, a woman and an executive in the construction sector is something of a minority trifecta for Catalina Campos of Greenovate Construction, but she makes each of those distinctions work for her as a Millennial. “It’s about being a change-maker and how it’s more acceptable for me to be in this industry because I am a Millennial,” she said. Her mother’s experience as a civil engineer from the Baby Boom generation was distinctly different, Campos noted, “so I’m very grateful I’m a Millennial and able to go off the beaten path.”

    As a group, honorees of 20 in Their Twenties almost always fall within the upper age range of that cohort—naturally, since they’ve been in the work force for eight or nine years, while the low end of the spectrum is still college-age. But that means most are at the threshold of 30, and with that change in chronology comes a change in expectations.

    “We’re entering our 30s and I think something interesting about Millennials is challenging the status quo,” said Blake Epstein. “I think that all the problems we’re inheriting are good, because if there’s anyone who can tackle those problems and figure out solutions, it’s probably us.” From being at ease with mobile applications such as ordering food, buying Christmas gifts or reviewing a movie, this tech-savvy generation understands the power of those digital tools. “As we get into other realms of technology that none of us have explored before, like AR and VR and the rise of artificial intelligence, I think it’s going to be our generation and those a little bit younger than us who are going to use those technologies to tackle climate change, to create a more globalized society and all these different things.”

    Addressing the way Millennials comport themselves—for example, those discomfited by November’s presidential election outcome—Julianne Mullane said she believes those in her peer group “bring their authentic selves to work, more so than the generations above us, more so than our bosses or some of our peers maybe at our levels.” Much of that she attributes to social media, where “a lot of your personal life was out there so there’s that gray area between personal life and professional life.” That’s altering traditional concepts of work/life rhythms, as they call them at Deloitte.

    Blake Brock tried to separate the political from cultural. “We’re progressive by nature,” he said. “So we’re challenging the status quo always asking why. We’re always looking for how we can do something better. Just because it’s being done a certain way now doesn’t matter to us.
We want to figure out how to be more efficient and when you blend that with the fact that we’re quickly taking over leadership positions, we’re going to have a lot of time to make an impact. It’s something we crave, making a difference, making change, and it’s kind of bred into us.”

    Blake Epstein cited the effects of changing workplace dynamics that are phasing out the career job with a given company.  “Baby Boomers had jobs for like 30 years; I don’t think many of us are going to have a given job longer than five, six or seven years. So gaining that much experience instead of 20 years at one company, we’re going to be at five companies over that 20-year span.” Company No. 6 in that progression, he believes, will be hiring workers with a different depth of experience. “I think that is what is driving innovation in a lot of different ways,” he said.

    Despite the changes wrought by technology, Jeff Huggins still sees the need for good, old-fashioned face-to-face communication. “We do a lot of interaction with email or Skype and it’s very real-time, but no matter how much we get ahead with technology, I think we still need this collaborative feeling and working together on a team,” he said. “Every now and then, there’s just something about getting people in a room like this and you have a chance for real communication and interaction and not just ‘here’s my idea in response to yours, I’m going to wait for your response.’
I think there can still be a lot of value in
that person-to-person.”

    Zack Donnelly noted the importance of flexibility with working conditions, since whatever changes come today won’t likely be set in stone. “I think the workspace still has a lot of evolution to go through, because technology is never going to stop growing,” he said. “What is prevalent today is not going to be prevalent a year from now. There are going to be a lot of new inventions and new technology advances that we’re going to have to plan for in the future, just as much as we are in the now.”

    sked whether they were concerned about potential degradation of interpersonal skills in this digital era, Russell Propp said his generation didn’t do face-to-face nearly as often as other generations. “So we’re already finding in the workplace that the collaborative atmosphere is going to be very important as well to develop people’s ability to communicate effectively in teams and pairs, and not make it purely digital to where there are no more face-to-face interactions,” he said.

    “We’re part of the technology,” said Andrew Wank. “We don’t even have a call center anymore. We were just at an employer group and talked about the strategy of email and the HR person looked at me and said; ‘Email’s dead in our company,’ ” which has grown more reliant on the immediacy of texting. “At what point do we as future leaders have a responsibility to say technology’s great, but unless you can talk face-to-face or communicate with somebody, you’re not a leader?” he asked.

    Coming from the accounting world, said Ben Anderson, “we do have our stereotypes, and the members on my team that hide behind email are the ones who can’t complete deadlines or projects on time. But the ones who get up out of their chairs and go to the partners’ offices and speak face-to-face, it makes it very apparent that business is about relationships and you have to have that face-to-face.”

    Despite the changes that this segment of Millennials has prompted and weathered, the younger half of that generation will also bring a different perspective to the workplace, said Stephen Stinger. “My little brother, who’s 10 years younger than me, has grown up in such a different world. We went to the same high school, he followed me 10 years later and they don’t even use their lockers because they have no books. Everything is accessed through iPad and other forms of tablets. It’s not even this difference between you and your parents—it’s between you and people 10 years younger. There’s already a huge gap.”

    Blake Epstein, perceptively anticipating the effects of getting older, cited “an inevitability for all of us to be overwhelmed by some future technology. When we have children, they’re going to have some crazy thing that we don’t understand.”

    Lifestyle considerations were also on the agenda, particularly those focused on marriage and family, and how older generations perceive Millennials as delaying consideration of both.

    “It’s a very conscious decision with my husband to wait and have children,” said Mattie Crossland. “A lot of that relates to my desire to establish my career. I don’t think I would have been as successful if I didn’t have a very similar-minded husband and someone to share home duties with. It’s a 50/50 deal and I have someone who looks at project plans with me (he’s a general contractor) . I think you can be married and not have to have children. And that can be a very good thing when you’re young.”

    For Lauren Roth, “It’s easier now than ever to have a family and be a success than it was in some of the generations before us because it was seen as this terrible thing if the woman went back and worked right away or men had to help out more at home. Now employers are more flexible and customers are understand-\\]ing of the fact that you don’t have to completely disrupt your career to make it all work.”

    In her own sector, Mattie Crossland sees the continuing boom in multifamily housing, but believes that trend is going too far. “They think these Millennials are going to rent forever, but in reality, they’re going to probably hit their mid-30s, they’re going to start having kids and they’re going to start moving back to the suburbs. Hence you see some of the suburbs starting to grow again. It’s a very real thing that maybe they won’t fit this tiny little mold they’ve put everybody in together.”

    When family does become an issue, it’s important to pass on to the next generation the values that make workplace and career success possible, said Jeff Huggins. “I’m probably the exception to the rule— I’m 27, married, I have an 11-month old. The Millennials who are successful are the ones who take ownership, work hard and can look back and say they were responsible for getting things done.” Providing the security that previous generations expected when growing up is now up to him, he said.


1. Irrespective of an employee’s age, Jeff Huggins said, clear goals are keys to organizational success.  | 2. Blake Epstein believes that a more transient work force could in the end provide companies a labor pool with a greater variety of workplace skills.  | 3. The changes produced by Millennials entering the work force won’t be static, said Zack Donnelly—there are more to come.

    And yet the values Millennials carry to their jobs will change the nature of companies, Blake Epstein believes. “We’re all joining companies that align with our belief systems, where we hope they do some sort of social good,” he said. “And by us creating companies, being entrepreneurs and having that as our compass, it’s going to close the gap. We’re going to pay people healthy wages and we’re going to give women the ability take off six months. He added “we’re going to join the companies that do good, and that will create less haves and have-nots and have more equality.” and More people will settle for less lucrative jobs just  to work at such companies, he said.

    It’s clear, these young executives said, that changes in corporate culture can tie in with success, and Millennials will long be a part of that process. “Cerner has been around for 37 years and it was founded by three Baby Boomers who have their beliefs and values, and that’s what the company has been built upon,” said Courtney Bond. “It’s been really interesting to see the shift in culture, the shift in the mindset as more Millennials get promoted and in these roles that have power.”