Will the Fortune 500 exist ten years from now? According to a 2012 study by Millennial Branding (conducted on Facebook), a projected 40% of the companies now listed on this esteemed roster probably will not be around by 2025. In a survey of over four million Facebook users, only 7% of respondents indicated that they are currently working for a Fortune 500 company. Looking ahead, big company life is not something which connects to the aspirations of most Gen Y folk.
Why? Millennial Branding founder Dan Schawbel states it this way: “Gen Y looks for more flexibility…they want to have access to social networks. Fortune 500 companies don’t usually allow this flexibility…Companies need to allow Gen-Yers to operate entrepreneurially within the corporation by giving them control over their time, activities, and budgets as much as possible.”
Unlike past warnings of the financial death of the Fortune 500, the Millennial Branding forecast relates to its demographic death. If a body blow is delivered to the Fortune 500 by Gen Y over the next decade, it will represent less a failure of financial prowess than a refusal to adapt to new definitions of progress and success emerging from this huge generation. Given these budding young workers will comprise as much as 75% of the US workforce by 2025, organizations must heed their new views of progress or risk losing vital fuel for innovation and collaboration engines so crucial to staying competitive.
By consciously focusing on the implications and expanded learning offered by Gen Y’s definition of progress, companies within and beyond the Fortune 500 can recalibrate to drive innovation more effectively and magnetize more Gen Y-ers to their ranks.
Gen Y Holds New Definitions of Progress
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Remember this famous car slogan from the late 1980s? “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile, this is the new generation of Olds.” That ad ran in an era dominated by the Baby Boom generation, a time when progress was largely equated with advances in new technology.
But today, “new” technology is the norm. “New” is always happening. Thanks to the innovation engines at Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook, advances in technology show up multiple times a year rather than just once every 12 months. Rather than occasionally bursting onto the living room television, “new” is thrust daily onto our laptop screens and smart phones. Today for Gen Y, progress is equated with relevance and the ability of a product or service to connect in meaningful ways with daily life.
In their book The Progress Principle, Harvard Business School professors Theresa Amabile and Stephen Kramer reveal results from studies linking Gen Y’s sense of progress to inner purpose and shared meaning. For Gen Y, progress goes beyond the seemingly straightforward pathways to financial gain or career success that propelled their Baby Boomer parents.
Gen Y seeks participation in collaborative activity that involves sweeps of people including – but also lying beyond – those co-habiting their office space. Greg Cox, president of the third largest office for Dale Carnegie’s global leadership training programs, notes that Gen Y recognizes “the future will not be based on individuals but on extraordinary combinations of people.”
Here are three principles Amabile and Kramer recommend for organizations seeking to engage Gen Y’s need for progress while also contributing to a sense of shared momentum in other cohorts as well:
1. Consciously develop a climate of progress: If you are a team leader, a consultant, or simply heading up a collaborative initiative in your workspace, develop a progress center that captures stories and insights about what is going right. These can either be accounts of actual experiences physically posted in your work area or made available online via wikis, an intranet, or other internal communication vehicles. Amabile and Kramer encourage frequent postings which consistently balance transparency and authenticity.
2. Define what progress means to your team: While working on a recent project for a mid-size manufacturing company, the CEO revealed to me that a specially selected work team he headed made a lot more progress when he was absent from the team than when he was present on it. Noticing that members clammed up or became very nervous when he challenged their viewpoints, the CEO ultimately refocused the team around progress goals that weren’t simply time oriented. That’s smart. Amabile and Kramer emphasize the need to ensure your team’s definition of progress isn’t solely revolving around factors linked to money and time. Definitions also need to embrace experiential learning, purpose, and the broader meaning behind the team’s shared efforts.
3. Experimentation connects to progress: Gen Y links progress to adapting, creating, and experimenting rather than to a “let’s wait and see how things turn out” attitude. Their desire is to be forward leaning and proactive. Solicit suggestions for experiments from the Gen Y members of your team. Take on board their ideas about situations in which new digitally driven approaches to market research or product development can replace – or complement – more traditional approaches. Ensure they have access to social networking tools which connect them to the world beyond your office. Amabile and Kramer suggest that when Gen Y-ers are encouraged to engage in experiments, it yields positive impact on their sense of progress. Even small wins which result from new learning through experimentation outweigh many other workplace rewards.
Many of the beliefs about progress now emerging from Gen Y have roots in Thomas Edison’s own revolutionary notions of innovation, collaboration, and competitiveness. Part of Edison’s ability to motivate the collaboration teams which spearheaded his innovation success rested on linking experimentation to a learning continuum. The culture of Edison’s Menlo Park and West Orange laboratories viewed experimentation as the lifeblood of progress itself.
Edison said, “The only way to keep ahead of the procession is to experiment. If you don’t, the other fellow will. When there’s no experimenting there’s no progress. Stop experimenting and you go backward.”
Whether the Fortune 500 can transform its Industrial Age mantle and take on new form in the Innovation Age remains to be seen. But heeding Gen Y’s expansive definition of progress can help the workforce in any organization reshape itself to drive greater collaboration and innovation competitiveness now.