Get better on purpose: What Boomers can learn from Millennials

by Steve Lundregan

I spent more than 30 years with a large insurance company, and during my tenure our leadership spent a great deal of time on “how:” How to execute, how to sell, how to get better, how to manage IT.

One thing we rarely did, though, was ask why we were in business – and when we did, it was usually for the annual board strategy session, when conversations were more rhetorical than real and limited to a few strategic players.

steve lundregan fisher
S. Lundregan

This flooded back to me recently when I spoke for a group of middle-market executives in Cleveland on the topic of “strategic operational excellence,” where I look to elevate the conversation and bridge the gap between overarching strategic matters and operational concerns – or, simply put, between the “why” and the “how.”

Little did I know it, this Baby Boomer was thinking like a Millennial.

Millennials, generally considered those born between the early ‘80s and early 2000s, are expected to comprise 75 percent of the global work force by 2025, bringing different values and ambitions with them. Studies show they are more motivated by intrinsic, or altruistic rewards than previous generations. They want to work for organizations with a strong sense of identity and purpose, firms making a difference in the world. They care about why organizations exist as much as what they do or how they do it.

Meanwhile, our world is getting more complex and the pace of change is accelerating. For Boomers like me, the message is “get comfortable being uncomfortable” and “enjoy the ride,” something I did for more than 30 years, awash in a sea of “how”s with nary a “why” in sight.

Operations management, by definition, is about how things get done. We focus on the work, on the process, and on getting better. With lean/Six Sigma tools, we analyze root cause, stabilize, and standardize. We map value streams and eliminate waste. All is well when we control conditions, but what happens when complex emergent conditions can’t be controlled or predicted?

Darwin wrote that strength and intelligence are not the keys to survival – rather, it’s adaptability to change. If the same applies to organizations, it’s no coincidence Millennials care so much about the “why.” If you know why, you can learn how. Take military leaders: They know battle conditions are never as expected, so commander’s intent clearly communicates the “why” behind orders so soldiers can improvise how to accomplish their mission. Likewise, focusing on “why” prepares Millennials to adapt and learn.

Organizations can learn from this. Spending more time on the organization’s purpose – why we exist and why we chose the goals and strategies we pursue – has multiple benefits. We engage current employees, attract the workforce of tomorrow, position our organizations to adapt, learn and grow in a complex world. Finally, we do more than educate future generations; we leave a legacy that inspires them.

Take a cue from Millennials: Know why. Learn how. Start now!

Steve Lundregan is a senior lecturer in the Management Sciences department at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, where he also serves as an associate director of the Center for Operational Excellence.

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