How Millennials Are Changing the Face of Leadership

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By: Ed Frauenheim for Fortune, Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

Tia Pope may be skilled in cryptographic security, but she lives her life in a way that’s just about the opposite of secret.

Pope is an engineer at technology company Cisco. Her specialty is cryptography, a profession devoted to keeping important information hidden from prying eyes. But Pope is extremely visible in the company and beyond. For the past several years, she has led an internal conference on security issues. Pope, who is in her late twenties, also has taken advantage of a Cisco community service program to give robotics classes to disadvantaged children in South Africa and India. And Cisco has broadcast her volunteer work on its website and social media channels.

In effect, Pope is a hard-charging, live-out-loud millennial. And she says she’s found a home at Cisco, where leaders have given her the power to reshape the security conference, the flexibility to work at home to care for her infant, and the freedom to do charity work around the globe. Four years after coming to the company following grad school, Pope has no plans to leave.

She isn’t temped by the texts from recruiters at some of the firms that first tried to hire her. And she feels bad for friends at other tech firms that lack a caring, power-sharing culture.

“I get texts, and I’m thinking ‘I’m glad I turned you all down,’” Pope says. “I’m speaking to my friends and they feel very confined or restricted in regard to what they can do, or just them mattering as an individual.”

With its ability to create a welcoming, inspiring environment for Pope, it’s not surprising that Cisco is on the 2019 list of the 100 Best Workplaces for Millennials, the annual ranking compiled by research and analytics firm Great Place to Work in partnership with Fortune.

Ultimate Software, a maker of HR applications, ranked No. 1 on this year’s list, followed by hotel giant Hilton and business software maker Salesforce.

To determine the 100 Best Workplaces for Millennials, Great Place to Work analyzed anonymous survey results from more than 4.5 million people, who responded to more than 60 survey questions. Eight-five percent of the evaluation is based on what millennials say about their experiences of trust and ability to reach their full human potential at their organization, no matter who they are or what they do. The remaining 15 percent of the ranking is based on their feedback about daily experiences of innovation, the company’s values, and the effectiveness of their leaders.

While studying the data, Great Place to Work also found that this dynamic, oft-misunderstood generation is changing the face of leadership—just as millennials are beginning to assume leadership roles in larger numbers.

The research shows that the style of leadership millennials are modeling and seeking to emulate is more diverse and inclusive than in previous generations. It’s more about partnership. It’s more about staying true to personal values. And it’s more about making space for people—father and mothers especially—to care for loved ones outside of work.

In effect, millennial-style leadership is a far cry from the regimented environments that have long defined workplaces, where employees have little to no flexibility, must do what they’re told and have to divide themselves into a “professional” and “personal” self.

What’s more, the evidence suggests millennial management fits quite well with the shift to a flatter, faster, fairness-focus business world. We’re poised to enter an era of more effective teams and organizations, guided by a new generation of authentic, purposeful, participatory leaders. What we at Great Place to Work call “For All Leaders.” For more information on the research, read A Great Place to Work For All.

A particularly striking finding from the research is that when millennials experience a great culture, they want to stay. Members of this generation who call their organization a great place to work are 50 times more likely to plan a long-term relationship with their employer compared to millennial employees who do not experience a great work environment. Eighty-seven percent of millennials at the 100 Best Workplaces for Millennials say they intend to remain there for a long time, roughly twice as many as the national average of 44 percent.

A great culture, then, is a solution to the turnover problem many organizations face with younger employees—especially in today’s tight labor market.

Cisco stands out for cracking the code on a great culture for younger people. Its results on the Great Place to Work Trust Index survey rose significantly from 2018 to 2019. There were particularly large jumps for millennials’ responses to statements including:

  • We celebrate people who try new and better ways of doing things, regardless of the outcome.
  • My work has special meaning: This is not “just a job.”
  • I want to work here for a long time.

As a result, Cisco now has 95 percent of its millennials saying the company is a great place to work, up from 91 percent last year.

The strong performance allowed the organization to move up 44 spots on the list of the 100 Best Workplaces for Millennials to No. 9.

Carmen Collins, Cisco’s Senior Social Media and Talent Brand Manager, says a key to making millennials feel at home is transparency.

“Cisco holds all-employee meetings called the Cisco Beat 10 times a year, where Cisconians have a first-hand look at products and campaigns, as well as open and honest executive Q&A time,” Collins says. “Nothing is off limits. If the answer is ‘I don’t know’ to a question—there’s a follow up.”

Collins isn’t kidding about the nothing-off-limits comment. Cisco leaders have shown themselves willing to address sensitive issues that extend beyond the company’s walls.

“When Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade committed suicide, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins sent an email about how important an issue this is and how Cisco doesn’t want there to be a stigma about it, with resources for employees if needed,” Collins says.

Collins herself is a Gen Xer. But she and other Cisco leaders recognize the importance to millennials of being able to bring their full, authentic selves to work.

“The @WeAreCisco social media channels feature employee voices to attract new employees, but also to retain current employees. If you want to know what it’s like to work at Cisco, it’s in the form of what real employees say,” Collins says. “What you see when you apply is the case when you walk in the front door. For employees, that means that they can be themselves—our motto is ‘Be you, With us.’”

For Caroline Olson, being herself means being a yoga teacher besides an engineer. The 24-year-old works as a pre-sales engineer for Cisco based in San Francisco. Cisco has assigned her to serve some of the biggest organizations in the Northern California region, but also makes time for Olson to teach yoga classes at 5:30 p.m. on Thursdays and Sundays.

Olson is grateful for Cisco’s flexibility on work hours and location, so that she can move from data networks to downward dogs every week. Her own commitment to a well-rounded life is something she sees in many of her millennial peers. “We really do value our work-life balance,” Olson says. “I’m able to have balance and feel rejuvenated outside of the office so that I may bring my best self to my work.”

As it makes space for millennials like Olson and Pope to live out the lives they want, Cisco is seeing its business results advance. For the three months ended April 27, Cisco’s revenue rose 6 percent to $13 billion, and its net income jumped 13 percent to $3 billion.

The strong performance is in keeping with Great Place to Work’s research on the business benefits of a “For All” culture, where a company maximizes its human potential by creating a great workplace experience for everyone, no matter who they are or what they do for the organization.

The research shows that Great Places to Work For All enjoy revenue growth that is three times higher than their less inclusive peers.

At Cisco, millennials like Olson and Pope are moving the organization ahead in a variety of ways. Consider Pope’s impact on the Cisco security conference. What was once a highly technical conference with very little diversity of voices has become a much more inclusive affair. Pope—who is African American—not only invited speakers beyond the white, male voices who had been the primary presenters in years past, but also widened the event to include clients, outside partners and Cisco functions like HR and marketing. Cisco marketing officials, for example, brought their expertise in effective communication to help generate infographics for an anti-phishing campaign to improve the company’s defenses against such attacks.

Pope also introduced a playful element, incorporating an “escape room” experience as part of the event. That was just one more way this millennial with cryptography expertise is expressing herself to a wide audience.

“I have a vessel to showcase my creativity,” Pope says of the annual conference. “I personally feel security involves everyone.”

See the full 2019 list of the 100 Best Workplaces for Millennials, broken down by size:

Ed Frauenheim is senior director of content at Great Place to Work and co-author of the book A Great Place to Work For All.


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