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Commentary

Most Business Leaders Don’t Know What Millennials Really Want

Feb 13, 2017

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “How can you help millennials feel like they’re part of the company?” is written by Chris Policinski, CEO of Land O’Lakes.

A career in agriculture can be a tough sell to ambitious millennials, so here at Land O’Lakes we experience firsthand the challenge of attracting and retaining young talent. What these millennials may not realize is that agriculture couldn’t be more poised to drive the conversation—and action—around many of the world’s toughest challenges.

By 2050, we will need 70% more food to feed a global population estimated to reach 9 billion. Doing so will require a successful transition between an aging farmer population and a new generation of food and agriculture professionals. Yet it’s estimated that more than 20,000 careers in food and agriculture will go unfilled each year, and only 3% of college graduates and 9% of millennials currently consider careers in agriculture.

More than half of our employees have joined Land O’Lakes in the last five years, and nearly 30% are in the millennial generation. Here is what we are learning about them:

Emphasize purpose over profit

Believe it or not, millennials are driven by more than the promise of free food and flex time. They put a premium on a sense of purpose—more so than their workplace predecessors. Almost nine in 10 (87%) of millennials surveyed as part of Deloitte’s 2016 Millennial Survey said they believe that “the success of a business should be measured in terms of more than just its financial performance.”

We try to help our millennial employees understand how their work connects to the big picture. Because we see the food chain from farm to fork, we offer millennials an opportunity to join us in our purpose of feeding human progress. We accomplish this by making sure to recognize how their individual efforts have contributed to fulfilling that purpose. We often structure meetings so that strategy and discussion begin and end by acknowledging our broader business mission.

Embrace mentorship

The presence of positive professional mentors makes a difference. We are not alone in experiencing this. According to Deloitte, 63% of millennials surveyed in 2016 said their leadership skills are not being fully developed. The survey also found that those intending to stay with their organization for more than five years are twice as likely to have a mentor than not.

At Land O’Lakes, we have embraced a culture of formal and informal mentor-mentee relationships. Through fellowships and a major investment in our internship program, we’ve institutionalized how new and veteran professionals interact and learn from each other.

We have a business incentive to do this—making millennials feel at home encourages them to stay on with the company. Our interns participate in key projects with specific deliverables, giving them an opportunity to engage with executive-level leaders. Inevitably, this has led to an increased retention rate for interns transitioning into full-time hires. Informally, we also encourage employees to form interpersonal relationships with their peers and colleague-leaders to help them grow and develop.

Don’t guess. Ask!

There is much many of my peers and I do not understand about what drives a growing portion of our employee base. If we want to learn more, we need to go to the source. We ask our employees for their ideas, concerns, and successes through employee surveys, town halls, and open-door policies. What we have learned from this is that our employees are not only driving growth in our business, but also that they are our biggest advocates. They feel connected to the purpose we have defined.

If we can avoid reinforcing a generational divide in how our teams operate, we can find ways to embrace our employees’ age differences and learn from them.

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