Managing Generational Tension in the Marketing Organization

By Stephanie Miller | 1.24.17

It's official: Millennials are the largest living demographic group. Their demands shape much of the always-on, mobile, and social connection between brands and customers. But millennial consumers aren’t the only challenge. Millennial employees present challenges, as well. Marketing leaders are still scrambling to adjust to the changing motivations and demands that keep people focused and happy in their work.

The reason? Millennials don’t value the same benefits as baby boomers; stability and 401K contributions and good health plans are not motivating to them.

Instead, millennials seek "purpose" at work.

At a recent roundtable event led by Econsultancy in New York, several learning and development (L&D) executives discussed the challenges of meeting the disparate needs of a multigenerational workforce and shared ideas on what is working well now.

It was a fascinating conversation—not just to hear what is working, but also to see the level of frustration as experienced professionals struggle to understand and communicate with these individually minded employees. The disconnect is real:

  • Particularly in marketing roles, millennials are especially comfortable with social technology, and a blend between personal and professional lives, and can often dismiss the importance of experience and deeper expertise. They live it, so they think they comprehend the drivers behind a digital lifestyle.

  • Marketing execs can be unwilling to adjust practices and the environment. However, as we immerse ourselves in customer journey mapping and personalization, perhaps it's time to apply this same insight-driven rigor to retaining valued employees.


What do millennials want? They look for everything from supporting social justice to "work with meaning" to ownership of the company and the stated mission. Perks vary and are often non-traditional, ranging from dogs at the office and beer fridges to flexible hours in remote locations.

While everyone from Aristotle forward has lamented the "strangeness" and unexpected behavior of the younger generations, the values of millennials seem to demand a rethinking of the foundational L&D precepts of our economy.

These challenges will not be unfamiliar to anyone who manages millennials.

  1. There is a significant gap between the oft-inflated self-assessment of most millennials and the actual contribution they make to the business. This leads to title and responsibility conflicts, as well as poaching risk.

  2. The most important skill that high-performing employees need is the ability to learn quickly and change easily. This can be difficult to address through instruction, and is instead tied to factors such as company culture, individual personality, and experience level.

  3. Budget limitations usually demand that development programs prioritize reach to a subset of deserving employees. It's difficult to fully support the retention of high performers and the identification, assessment, and development of rising stars.

  4. Modern business operations and revenue models require cross-functional collaboration and thus demand that people frequently work outside their job descriptions and strict departmental remit. Goals and corporate structure must adapt to accommodate this.

  5. Investment in people—learning and development—is nearly universally under-appreciated for its effect on culture and, thus, on revenue and strategy.


Strategies for success

Compounding these challenges is the need to "invest forward" in skills that will be needed in the future. Thus the complexity of creating an agile, always-on, continually learning organization can be exponential in scope.

Executives participating in the roundtable cited six strategies they use successfully:

  • Reframing value at each competency stage

    • While many millennials exaggerate it, there are very real working life stages that pose high risk for attrition. For example, the space between a senior entry-level role and a junior mid-management role. Millennials don't generally accept things as they are, and this creates pressure to adjust the organizational structure.

    • Use flexible tools such as a nine-box assessment to clearly show employees where they are in the value chain, why they are appreciated, and what skills they need to sharpen. 

  • Clarity no matter how difficult the conversation

    • Critical to the relationship is a clear set of meaningful benefits and career path opportunities that will retain—and train—high performers. 

    • Recognition matters to this generation.

  • Creative learning

    • Some managers find that cross-functional projects, job sharing, and even job swapping between colleagues in different countries can be a highly effective way to motivate millennials.

    • Travel seems to be a powerful millennial motivator. All these opportunities need to be clearly defined and strictly managed, and should be accessible only to select employees.

  • Gamification

    • For millennials, having fun at work is paramount, and gamification techniques in e-learning is the most engaging format. Self-guided programs work best as part of a mix of online and in-person training. 

  • Mentoring

    • Mentoring that is flexible and informal can work well. Structure can often stiffen the interchange and restrict real outcomes. Rather than a formal program, identify potential mentors and train (and reward) them to provide informal support to high-value employees. Involve senior executives to give them firsthand insights into the shifting values of the workforce.

  • Retention

    • To put the value of people development in perspective, calculate the cost of losing people and then allocate that budget for training and retention.


What are you doing to adapt your mentoring and professional development programs to the changing motivations of the millennial-led workforce? Have you adapted your customer journey principles to your internal customer?

About the Author

Stephanie Miller, managing partner, digital transformation, at eConsultancy U.S., is a marketing automation, digital marketing, and eCRM expert with a long history in enterprise technology professional services. Her team is responsible for bespoke training, digital maturity audits and agile organization culture and skills transformation.

Miller also serves at principal of Marketing Automation Opportunity, and is on the advisory board of the Direct Marketing Club of New York. Connect with her at @StephanieSAM or LinkedIn.