It's been almost one month since the 2014 Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit, and as I think about the questions and topics that really resonated, I keep returning to a panel I moderated on 'The New Emerging Workforce.'
The three women on the stage—Mellody Hobson, President of Ariel Investments; Gisele Ruiz, EVP and COO at Wal-Mart North America (wmt); and Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America—are young women themselves, although Generation Xers rather than millennials. They're not exactly hobbling around on canes. And yet all three of them agreed on the fact that managing this new generation had turned out to be much more challenging than they had anticipated.
Why? It's not because millennials aren't motivated.
"Their sense of purpose and being greater than their job is incredible," said Ruiz. It's because Gen-Y has a different way of learning and interacting in the workforce. This is something that leaders must learn to deal with rather than hoping that millennials will "grow out of it," says Kopp: "They communicate differently, and if we don't adapt to that, we will lose them."
Here, then, are three observations from the panel on how to understand this new generation—and ways to help them (and their elders) thrive in the workplace.
Many of the women in the room laughed in frustrated recognition when Hobson told the story of a young, highly qualified woman who quit Ariel after a short time, unhappy because she hadn't been personally mentored by Hobson—who happened to be the president of an 80 person firm and who had never been asked to work with the employee at all.
Hobson was upset—she remembered her early experience as being all about paying her dues—but she realized something: "It all goes back to the cell phone," she says, meaning that since cell phones have been around, young people had access to instant answers (be it from their mom or Google).
Therefore, millennials are surprised and shocked if they don't get what they want at work immediately. This does not mean, by the way, that employers should drop everything to answer a simple question or promote someone who doesn't deserve it; what it means is understanding that this generation is accustomed to getting quick answers and quick results, and that leveraging that speed via quick promotions or extra mentoring—only for those who truly deserve it—will help.
Another trait of this new generation, agreed the panelists, was the fact that millennials have an incredible ability to research and gather information, via technology. But there's another side to that, says Hobson."Millennials are great at collecting information, but not so great on decisions," she observes. "We're in many ways trying to force a point of view."
Perhaps because of that darned cell phone, it's easier to ask for answers than it is to stand behind your own opinion. How can employers encourage that confidence? One member of the audience, Alexa von Tobel of LearnVest (a millennial herself), said that she doesn't allow her employees to ask their supervisors specific questions about work during the regular work day, so that they will be forced to figure things out on their own.
Channel their passion
A paycheck and a steady job is not the sum total of the millennials' workforce happiness equation. They want to make a difference—and while that may mean impatience, it also means passion. While there may not be time to mentor and assist every single new member of your workforce, to do a better job of discerning key players quickly, so that you have a better sense of who to keep. And if you can define your company's purpose, a la Teach for America, it will make you a more desirable place to work.
Now we'd love to hear from you: Does this describe the emerging workforce, in your opinion? And if it doesn't, what does? Email me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“From the MPW Co-chairs” is a series where the editors who oversee the Fortune Most Powerful Women brand share their insights about women leaders.