Leaders Need To Inspire Young Workers To Retain Them

Executives should listen to Gen Zers and young millennials and lean into their values, says management expert Karl Moore

gen z workers, workforce management, leadership, management

There is a generational change taking place in the world of work. The pandemic has accelerated the departure of older people from the labor force while Gen Zers and younger millennials are playing a greater role and bringing new values and behaviors to the office, including quiet quitting and more frequent job hopping.

This change poses a challenge for corporate leaders, most of whom belong to the Gen X or baby boom generations, says Karl Moore, an associate professor of Strategy and Organization at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. His latest book, “Generation Why: How Boomers Can Lead and Learn from Millennials and Gen Z,” explains why the old top-down style of corporate leadership no longer works. He urges bosses to inspire and lead younger employees by tapping into their values.

“It's much more challenging for a young person to understand how older people view the world because they weren't alive then,” Moore says. “So I think leaning in has to come mainly from my generation, and Gen Xers.”

He spoke recently with Simon Luong, a Fellow leading the Oliver Wyman Forum’s Global Consumer Sentiment initiative.

Why did you feel that this misunderstanding between generations is important to write about?

What I argue in the book is that Gen Zers and younger millennials were taught a postmodern worldview, and it’s challenging for them to understand how older people – including the people who run their organizations – view the world. We older people were taught a modern worldview. The postmodern view rejected, rightly, the way the modern view fell short. An example is truth. There’s a lot less “truth” than when I was young, and who has truth has evolved. It's much less hierarchical.

When I was a kid, I’d go with my mother to the doctor and see a man with a white coat and stethoscope. He was a god, and we took whatever he prescribed. Today, the majority of medical students at McGill are women. We address doctors by their first name and ask them questions based on what we found in online searches. Truth comes from many more sources than just men in white coats. There’s less of a sense of hierarchy.

In your book, you state how reverse mentoring can play an important role in employee retention, but many executives are reluctant to engage in these relationships. How do you suggest that leaders frame reverse mentorship initiatives?

First of all, they have to model it, not just talk about it. Every couple of weeks, the CEO should have breakfast with Gen Zers and say, “Look, I'm here to learn. Where are we falling short for you guys?” If you want to understand how to lead young people, ask them. If you want to understand how our strategy or business model may be falling short, ask them. I’m not saying you have to do everything they say, but talk less and listen more. That is inspiring behavior. Young people love it. Everybody does, actually. And you're more apt to be reverse mentored if you're listening.

The classic top-down management style works fine in an unchanging world, but in a turbulent environment you have to change strategy more often. You have to be agile, entrepreneurial. Everybody's a strategist, everybody can have ideas. The CEO’s job is not to have the ideas but to recognize good ones, resource them, and scale them across the organization.

Considering the prevalence of job seeking among Gen Zers, what is the most-effective way to retain them, and where do things like diversity and inclusion initiatives and feedback fit in relative to compensation?

Well, you've got to pay the right amount because they’re aware. They can look on Glassdoor and talk to their friends. But a more profound answer is to lean into what they value, what they think is important.

We used to measure ourselves by the kind of suit we wore or the kind of car we drove. But how we measure ourselves evolves over time. For younger people today, it’s about purpose. I recently interviewed Dax Dasilva, the founder and former CEO of Lightspeed Commerce, an e-commerce platform for merchants. He stepped up to executive chair last year and now focuses on his non-profit, Age of Union, that supports conservation projects around the world. Protecting the environment, having a sense of purpose — that resonates with my students.

Another thing is to make sure they understand they’re really important, and that if they leave, you want them back. When I started my career at IBM, it was considered a job for life. My father couldn’t believe it when I left for a job that nearly doubled my income. Today, careers don’t mean being in one organization for life. If you leave for a better opportunity, I should congratulate you, thank you for your work, and say, “Let’s keep in touch.” I want to be a great boss that employees want to work for.

You write about how workplace values have shifted over time. Do you see companies making space for postmodern values such as work-life balance and personal fulfillment?

I think they have no choice. I teach a course with a partner in a management consultancy and that profession is evolving. You still work like a dog but now they have Fridays back home and they generally don't travel on Sundays. I talk to investment bankers and hear a similar story; there's much more sending people home at a more reasonable hour.

I wrote an article a few years ago that said, OK, Boomer, you’re making fun of what young people want. But then a year later you want the same thing And it got a lot of views because it resonated. A lot of what young employees want, like flexibility and working from home, will help evolve the organization in a way that older employees will appreciate.  

Critics say Gen Zers will age out of a lot of these attitudes, just as prior generations did. Do you think that’s true? And if not, what Gen Z beliefs do you think will stand the test of time?

There is an aging process, and just getting older and having children and having a mortgage kind of focuses the mind. But what I'm arguing is that there's been a fundamental shift in terms of their belief system and how they view the world that is going to be there for decades to come.

That said, their views will change a bit over time. And the next generation will push them in ways we don't yet understand.

As you were researching for your book, what findings were most surprising for you?

Well, I didn't anticipate most of it. I just started reading about the postmodern view coming out of philosophy and theology, and I was surprised that the ideas around truth and hierarchies seemed so germane to management leadership.

There are some areas where Gen Zers can get better. I've seen a decline in appreciation over the last 10 years. Where students would thank me, now they act kind of like I owe them. If they’re reverse-mentoring me 30% of the time, the flip side is I’m mentoring them 70% of the time – and don’t you forget it.

But it’s harder today. You have to run faster to keep up. I think humility in front of a changing world is what we all need.