How Millennials Taught Me To Be The Boss

I spent a lot of my career as the Creative Director of a big ad agency. The majority of my team were 20-somethings. They were demanding/generous, ambitious/entitled, laziest/hardest-working, worst/best, blah/blah – not a whole lot different from when I was their age, except that they learned faster than I ever did, were more capable from the start, thanks to their schooling and personal projects – oh, and they taught me to lead, not manage.

millennials

3 Teeny Tiny Stories On How Millennials Taught Me To Be The Boss

1. On a slow news week in in 2008, Macleans magazine ran a three-page article under the headline, “The Intern Who Saved Shreddies”. Yes, you read right. A summer intern, a recent graduate, stopped the financial slide of the old, loved, but forgotten cereal brand. Post Cereals was a client of our agency and had decided to give Shreddies one last push before it stopped supporting the brand altogether. The intern, Hunter Somerville, had what he thought was the “stupidest, worst idea in the world”. So stupid in fact, that he almost didn’t show us. The idea: to create a fake line extension by turning the wheat square 45 degrees, and calling it, Diamond Shreddies. He didn’t realize that he’d had what advertising calls a “big idea”. The idea. He didn’t know what to do with it. We had the senior members of the team put down their tools and help bring Hunter’s idea to life. They used all the old tricks: TV ads, billboards, but also online video and social media, engagement and transparency, when almost no one was doing it yet. The campaign was a smash and the brand grew 18%. Hunter was 26, not yet fully employed, but his idea, recognized by a savvy boss, my partner Nancy Vonk, and supported, developed and executed with the help of mentors, saved the day.

When we ‘manage’, we think people need to walk before they can run, but Hunter was out of the gate before the starter pistol went and we found it true of most millennials. In our world, there was little time for a measured process of growth, or practice making perfect. It was all deep-end. To put racing stripes on their learning curve, we gave them mentors, who were more like “big brothers and sisters” or player-coaches, than supervisors or career guides. Millennial success was their success. While the mentors weren’t always thrilled with the arrangement at first, they came to see that helping even one person was earning them their own leadership skills: looking at the bigger picture, guiding, listening, having tough conversations, generosity. And we could step back and watch everyone grow.

2. We had an account where the clients always said, “I only want your best people, your senior people working on my business.” As I’ve already mentioned, we didn’t have all that many senior people, so a very talented young team did the creative work, while a senior team did the client-facing work. Doesn’t seem quite fair, does it? Looks like we were letting seniors take credit for the work of their young counterparts. Except, the seniors took this junior team to meetings with them and invited them to speak up. As the clients got to know the young team, they began seeking out their thoughts and opinions. Soon, the seniors told our clients that the campaign was work of the Gen Ys and before long, that same, stubborn client was saying, “I only want young people working on my business.”

While we didn’t fling them in front of CEOs on Day One, our young staff was unusually poised and well-spoken, so we often called our clients and asked them to help us develop this talented group by taking them seriously, being open to hearing from them, having patience when they stumbled. Their passion and energy invariably won the day and they grew quickly into people who could engage a room. Ivan Pols, a creative director at Adam&Eve in the UK, said of his millennial staff, “[They don’t] present themselves like they’re at the bottom of the totem pole. What they lack in experience, they make up for in skills, guts and voice.” Amen to that.

3. When I was promoted to Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy Toronto, along with my partner, Nancy, we started off by saying that our door was always open. About 6 months in, one of our younger staff stepped through it and said some version of “you guys are doing a horrible job and someone needs to tell you.” The upshot was that because Nancy and I had always worked as a team, we tried to lead as a team, which was creating mass confusion, mom vs dad, and contradictions galore. Our employee painted a vivid picture of how, instead of helping our people, we were holding them back. Ouch. What a brave woman. Most people wouldn’t have had the courage, regardless of “open door” policy.

There’s a lot of noise about how millennials, the generation of Facebook, helicopter parents and “everyone gets a trophy”, need feedback every five minutes. It’s often interpreted as neediness, but maybe it’s a sea change that we need to get comfortable with. Knowing where they stand, what we appreciate about them, what they could do better and how helps them improve in real time. Which, done right and regularly, should save us a mountain of headaches.

But, they want to give you their feedback too, and as much as they have to learn, they also have plenty to teach. Reverse mentoring is a gift and we got dramatically better at our job when that young woman walked through the door.

Our young talent wanted what many of us want: training and mentoring, a chance to learn and grow, some autonomy, flexibility, a sense of purpose, a little quality of life and to be heard. They were happy to led, but they didn’t want to feel ‘managed’. Offer that and they’ll give their all. Most companies don’t bet the farm on their youngest employees. We did and they become our secret weapon.

About The Author

Janet Kestin is the former co-Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy Toronto, with Nancy Vonk. Together they led teams to recognition including two Cannes Grand Prix for ground-breaking work on Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty. In 2012 they were named to Advertising Age magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential Women in Advertising list, and left their CCO jobs to start Swim. The Swim mission: to empower leaders at every level to up their game with creative tools and insights that motivate and inspire people to deliver their best. They have been tapped by top companies in advertising, architecture, design, fashion and media. Swim’s unconventional approach to leadership training has been noted in Forbes and Fast Company. She is also a member of NextGenLeaders®. www.nextgenleaders.ca www.millennialleadershipsummit.com


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of The HR Gazette or its team members.
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