Is your company millennial-friendly?

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Meaningful mentoring, opportunities to grow, flexibility and work/life integration: millennials — like women — want more from today's workplace.

Millennials comprise more than one-third of the U.S. population; the success of the retail industry depends on attracting and keeping them as employees (and customers).  

These 20- and 30-somethings have been cast as feeling entitled and lacking ambition. But research shows millennials work hard and are eager to learn and grow. Early-career women, in particular, are looking for opportunities for advancement; in fact, it's the top trait these women seek in an employer.

While there are exceptional companies who have cultivated workplaces that offer millennials a strong career path, in general, the retail and consumer product industry is not a leading destination for high-potential young women. My advice to make your organization an employer of choice: Ask millennials on your team what they want in a workplace and what their career goals are. Then ask yourself how you can develop young professionals to leverage their insights, experiences and talents.

I had such a conversation with Ashley Martina, 28, who earlier this year joined pep, the promotion management firm, as a marketing and communications executive. Here are a few highlights from our discussion:

You’ve worked for an international non-profit and interned at GE and Christie’s in London. As a young professional, what about the retail, consumer goods and services industry appealed to you?

Ashley Martina: I’ve read countless articles about millennials’ desire for instant gratification. This typically carries a negative connotation, but I think it can be a positive. This industry is appealing because it’s so fast-paced. You find out almost instantly if a product or campaign is or is not successful, which makes it crucial to produce something great at the onset. Maybe I am driven by instant gratification, but if I apply this constructively to my career in an industry that demands instantly satisfying offers, then I think that’s a very productive application of what a millennial can bring to the table.

Do you see the retail and consumer products industry as a place to build your career?

Martina: Consider Denise Morrison, CEO and president of Campbell Soup Company, Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Inc., and Sheri McCoy, CEO of Avon Products — all leaders of Fortune 500 companies who are paving the way for women to reach the top of the industry. Not only are they providing aspirational goals for young professionals, but also opening new doors for women in this industry. Notice the shift in the way products are being advertised. Emotion has always played a part in purchasing decisions, but now companies are being more intentional about addressing the “emotional sell.” Women innately tend to be emotional beings and I think this is a great opportunity to use that empathy as a competitive advantage. It’s important to remember that women are the primary consumer products consumer, which makes our voices that much more valuable.

Do you have a mentor or sponsor?

Martina: I am fortunate to have both a mentor and a sponsor. Earlier this year, I attended a Network of Executive Women regional event featuring Carla Harris, vice chairman, wealth management at Morgan Stanley. She emphasized the importance of pinpointing key players to help you grow and be successful. Finding advocates to help you succeed is not optional. 

How does pep cultivate a workplace attractive to millennials?

Martina: My company is extremely accommodating to the millennial workforce; pep promotes work-life balance by offering flexible hours, the opportunity to work from home once a month and two-hour passes to leave early or come in late, among other benefits. They recognize that working a 10-hour day doesn’t necessarily mean you accomplished more than the person working eight hours. pep also provides a mentorship program that begins day one with the company and is also a certified MBE (Minority Business Enterprise) with the National Minority Supplier Development Council and has dedicated initiatives for diversity and inclusion.

Work-life integration seems very important to you. Sometimes corporate America interprets the desire for balance as “lazy” or “not interested in working hard.”

Martina: At this point in my life, I don’t have children and I’m not married so putting in rigorous hours is not a concern for me. That being said, I do appreciate the option to come in late and stay late or vice versa. I very much value being able to take vacation time. I’ve had the opportunity to work in the United Kingdom where employees receive 20 days of paid vacation, minimum. I think the U.S. has some work to do in this area. I manage work-life balance by trying to be mindful of my time. If I am at work then I strive to be focused and productive, but once I leave I take some time to relax and detach so that I can be fully present when spending time with friends and family. Mindfulness is key!

Can you share an experience when you’ve thought, “This company doesn’t care about cultivating the next generation of leaders?”

Martina: One of the worst things you can ever hear from an employer is: “We’ve always done it this way and it’s worked for us.” This is definitely a red flag for any millennial hoping to make an impact in an organization; it’s very deflating. We understand that what you’ve accomplished has been successful and we are never trying to discredit that, but if you don’t keep looking forward you’ll get left behind.

What other advice do you have for leaders of millennials to get the most out of their high-potential employees?

Martina: Be open-minded. The majority of buzz surrounding millennials is negative. Some say millennials are lazy, sheltered, want everything handed to them, etc. I would argue that millennials are some of the most creative, forward-thinking, driven people to bring into a workforce. Give them a chance and you won’t be disappointed.

Also, be transparent. We want to know what you expect so that we can go above and beyond that. If we’re missing the mark, help us realign. Be sure to clearly define how we can progress to the next level.

We value a meritocracy. Millennials appreciate being rewarded and recognized for good work. This motivates us to work even harder and continue earning that appreciation. And, of course, keep work-life in mind. Create an environment of flexibility. The people you want working for you will not abuse it.

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Joan Toth is past president and CEO of the Network of Executive Women, the largest women’s leadership organization serving the retail and consumer goods industry.

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