The Trouble With Talent: Why Employees Are Disengaged and What To Do About It

Words: The year was 2000. The startup that launched in 1998 had outgrown the garage, relocating to a nondescript building in an office park a couple of miles off the highway. Outside that building, on an asphalt parking lot, yellow police tape marked off an area where employees played roller hockey. The games were full contact. Employees wore pads and would come back inside drenched in sweat and sometimes bloodied and bruised. The harder you played, the more respect you earned. Inside the building, there was free food for all employees and a massage therapist on site. And with brightly colored exercise balls and couches everywhere, the place looked like a kindergarten class crossed with a freshman dorm. But the company’s founder held the team to a high standard, often provoking arguments with the staff over business and product decisions. A few years after the idea of ranking web pages by their inbound links came to Larry Page in a dream, the founder of Google wrote down his five rules for management. He was in his twenties at the time.
  1. Don't delegate. Do everything you can yourself to make things go faster.
  2. Don't get in the way if you're not adding value. Let the people actually doing the work talk to each other while you go do something else.
  3. Don't be a bureaucrat.
  4. Ideas are more important than age. Just because someone is junior doesn't mean they don't deserve respect and cooperation.
  5. The worst thing you can do is stop someone from doing something by saying, “No.” If you say no, you have to help them find a better way to get it done.
This unrelenting focus on ideas, outcomes, employee empowerment, and purpose had never existed before, and Google is still known today for having a workplace culture that is truly revolutionary. Somewhere at the tail end of the 20thcentury—perhaps right in that asphalt parking lot where the first Google employees played roller hockey—the economy pivoted and radical changes occurred, and as a result, talent would soon become our nation’s most precious and elusive resource. Remember when work was just a job? Let’s pause for a moment to contemplate the significance of the shift that’s taken place. 1910 Natural resources were a company’s most valuable assets. America’s leading companies grew large by spending increasing amounts of capital to acquire and exploit oil, mineral deposits, forests, water, and land. 1946 Post-World War II, companies took a lesson from the military and applied systems to everything for increased efficiency, predictability, and productivity. This became known as ‘command-and-control’ management. 1955 American-made cars spurred both the natural resources and manufacturing industries. These companies needed lots of labor, but mainly for routine-intensive jobs. When turnover occurred, jobs were easy to fill. 1963 IBM, a relatively new breed of corporation, made the list of 20 largest companies in the United States. IBM was a technology company—not reliant on automation or natural resources— but scientists, engineers, marketers, and salespeople. 1965 Business growth dominated the economy, and more jobs began to require creativity, as well as independent judgment and decision-making skills. 1998 Google was founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, ages 25 and 24, ushering in an era of rule-breaking and innovation among people who would have once been regarded as too young to lead or influence. 2016 Topping the 50 largest companies list were Apple, Microsoft, and Google—all technology companies. People under the age of 35 were starting more companies, managing bigger staffs, and realizing higher profits than any of their predecessors. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Talent Economy—an era fueled by ideas and information and driven by a collaborative, innovative, mobile, on-demand workforce. Within a very short period of time, two major changes occurred that would change the world of work as we know it:
  • It became apparent that young people have valuable talent to offer and the rules of management could be rewritten; and
  • In the most successful organizations, young professionals and experienced leaders would work alongside one another to come up with new ideas, take risks, and ditch status quo.
Young professionals and experienced leaders working together sounds easy enough, perhaps even obvious. But this practice has proven to be quite difficult, and in many cases vastly overlooked. A Generation Gap Three generations dominate the current workforce: Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1981), and Generation Y, also known as Millennials (1982-1995). Generation Z (1996-2009) is just beginning to enter the workforce. At the end of 2015, Millennials became the workforce majority. This transition marked the largest shift in human capital in history; for the first time in 34 years the Baby Boomers were no longer the workforce majority. This massive shift in human capital caused big problems for even the most successful companies. Employeeturnover has become a major concern, costing U.S. companies an estimated $30.5 billion per year, according to Gallup. As a result, Millennials have been type-casted as the most difficult workforce in history, and they also happen to be the most studied generation in history. But rather than dismissing this generation as unmotivated, lazy, and entitled, it’s crucial to look at the larger macro trends in play. Millennials, and the generations that follow, have little to no memory or understanding of processes, hierarchy, and doing things the way they’ve always been done. This is a generation that was born into and has only known a world powered by interconnectedness, globalization, and opportunity. They will struggle to comprehend why decisions can’t be made on the fly and why they can’t have a seat at the decision-making table. Consider that Millennials are the first generation raised in a world driven by technology and globalization. They came of age during the Great Recession—the worst economic decline our country had experienced in 70 years—and they are the best-educated generation in history, and the most protected and supervised generation in history. These characteristics have shaped this generation’s career trajectory, making Millennials more likely to change jobs than previous generations. XYZ University’s research of U.S. Millennials reveals they have spent more time than other generations exploring careers for two key reasons:
  1. They are searching for jobs that tap into their values for education and collaboration; and
  2. They are still reeling from the recession, seeking jobs that will allow them to support themselves financially.
 The Deloitte Millennial Survey, which surveyed nearly 7,700 Millennials in 29 countries, revealed that 44 percent of this generation plans to leave their jobs within the next two years. Here’s why:
  1. Young professionals feel most businesses have no ambition beyond profit; and
  2. Young professionals report their leadership skills are not being fully developed by their current employer.
Clearly, the values of this generation aren’t aligning with most employee experiences – but it turns out, employees of all ages are feeling disengaged. The Employee Engagement Gap Long before the Millennials arrived on the scene and the largest shift in human capital took place, much ink was being spilled on the challenges of disruption and employee engagement. Gallup has been tracking employee engagement since 2000, reporting that less than one-third of U.S. employees have been engaged in their jobs and workplaces during the past 18 years. And every year since 1987, the Conference Board has conducted a job satisfaction survey. In 1987, 61 percent of workers said they liked their jobs. Today, only 49 percent of employees are happy at work. Why is this happening? For starters, we inherited institutions designed for the 20thcentury, which are unable to cope with the mounting pressures of constant change. Many organizations are still structured to maximize efficiency by way of clearly defined roles, which automatically creates resistance to any variance. Now we’ve moved into the 21stcentury and today’s workers—raised with little to no memory or understanding of processes or hierarchy—don’t want to work in organizations with clearly defined roles, organizational silos, top-down management, or predictability. Hence, we have a problem. In today’s turbulent, competitive marketplace, organizations need workers with passion, leaders who are willing to disrupt the status quo, and teams working in collaboration with one another. But the majority of organizations have held steadfast to former practices and are now observing decline and increases in employee turnover as a result. We cannot continue along this path. For too long, we’ve just assumed there isn’t a better way and it’s impossible to engage today’s young talent. But clearly, there is another way. All I have to do is mention the word ‘Google’ and you know what I’m talking about. I mentioned Page’s rules for management earlier. Employees are drawn to Google because working there means something more than “just” working for an internet service and product company. In fact, Google is successful for reasons that have very little to do with what the company actually does. Google was built on the premise that people want meaningful work, knowledge of what’s happening in their environment, and the opportunity to shape that environment. Simply put, Google put its employees at the center of everything – and success has certainly followed. Google embodies the two trademarks of a successful 21stcentury organization: People First and Future-Focused. Companies that put people first value people more than anything—even profits. Companies that are future-focused are visionary and innovative and give younger generations an empowering, influential role in the development of the organization. When more leaders make the conscious decision and take the appropriate actions to value people more than profits and invest in the next generation of talent, that’s not only when we will succeed at collaboration and innovation, it’s when we will reverse the decline, resolve the conflicts, and ultimately prevent our businesses and economy from failing. Employee engagement has steadily been declining for more than 50 years, and few have raised their voices in opposition or dedicated themselves to initiating a change. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Talent Economy and you are leading it. It’s time for a change. Put people first and be future-focused in all you do. It’s our only and best solution for engaging talent and making work work again.  Sarah Sladek is the CEO of XYZ University LLC, a leading future-focused management consulting firm.
Words: Sarah Sladek Photos: Sneksy, Tempura, DenGuy, sturti
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