Why workplace diversity depends on engaging millennials

Odgers Berndtson partners, Jane Griffith and Eric Beaudan, offer their perspective on why cultivating the future leaders of Canada will require a more inclusive and flexible approach to talent.


April 21, 2017

By: Jane Griffith and Eric Beaudan

Ms. Griffith is a partner and the national diversity leader at Odgers Berndtson in Toronto. Mr. Beaudan is global head of the firm’s leadership practice. Both are actively involved in the CEO X 1 Day program. – a program exclusive to Odgers Berndtson that is designed to uncover and develop Canada’s future leaders.

Millennials are the largest generation in the Canadian workplace – estimated to make up more than 50 per cent by 2020. The most educated and diverse generation yet, we believe they have different values and expectations about the workplace. We also believe that in the next decade or two, they have the potential to change the face of leadership in Canadian companies by radically increasing the number of diverse executives in the C-suite and at the board level. But this can only happen if organizations engage and develop this multidimensional cohort.

Every year, we see incredible diversity of gender, race and background represented in the students that apply for our CEO X 1 Day program – which matches top undergraduate students with chief executives across Canada for a day of job shadowing. Through one-on-one interviews and psychometric testing, we have learned a lot about their motivations. We know they care about what a company stands for, and what kind of development and collaboration opportunities will be available to them. And we also know they value discovering new skills and making an impact – sometimes more than they care about how much money they make.

Most importantly, we know that top millennials want to work for organizations that don’t pay lip service to diversity and inclusion, but actually embrace it by providing a supportive environment where they can express their views and opinions, and where different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives are valued.

For organizations looking to attract and retain these millennial superstars, we’d like to offer a few ideas on how to reframe the notion of diversity and inclusion.

Create your own CEO X 1 Day program

Since launching CEO x 1 Day in 2014, several companies have asked for advice on how to get a similar program running within their own organizations. They recognize the value for millennials to be matched with senior talent, which can lead to mentoring and sponsorship opportunities and the development of high potentials. But the real value is the opportunity to provide reverse mentoring opportunities, where senior management is learning from a younger, more diverse work force.

One of the first CEOs to participate in our program, Nitin Kawale (then the CEO at Cisco Canada) was a huge proponent of this concept. At the time, he was being mentored by a young woman at Cisco who he said changed the way he was communicating across the company. He led by example and demonstrated that young people have much to offer in today’s workplace.

Understand that diversity is not always inclusion

While it’s true millennials want and expect to see diversity in an organization’s leadership team and in the people who manage them, they are also looking for an environment where they can be themselves, and where they feel heard and recognized.

According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, employees who work with managers who practise this kind of inclusion are 87 per cent more likely to feel free to express their opinions. They are also 1.3 times more likely to feel their innovative potential is being unlocked.

Abby Gnawali, a University of British Columbia student who recently spent the day with Odlum Brown CEO Debra Hewson, says that she wants to work for a company that can demonstrate a commitment to collaboration and to the growth of its people at all levels. “I want to work for a company that actually hires me for what I can bring to the organization that is unique to me,” she told us.

Cultivate an adaptive culture

If you want to create an environment where millennials feel included, you may need to be open to creating a more adaptive culture. Contrary to past generations, millennials do not come out of school expecting to have to battle diversity issues in the workplace. Instead, they believe companies should be structured to accommodate and embrace their unique backgrounds and racial identities.

As talent experts, we often see clients turn down a candidate because they may not fit with their culture. But we believe, and millennials agree, that companies should be asking them how they can make cultural contributions, not what they can do to fit in Millennials believe they have a contribution to make, and they expect companies to value this and welcome their diverse approaches.

Make it easy for millennials to thrive

Every year, when we pour through applications we are in awe of the scope of accomplishments of the students that apply. Not only do they come from different disciplines, but they come to us having led numerous on-campus initiatives, started their own businesses, volunteered for charities around the world and so much more. They are also proud of where they come from, so they are looking for organizations that will support who they are and the many facets of their lives that enable them to be their best.

Google has recognized this from its inception. The company gives its employees a day a week where they can work on their own projects and pursue what interests them. The former CEO of Purolator, Patrick Nangle, also supported this idea. As a result of participating in our program, he implemented a training program that had been suggested to him by Jing Wen Luo, a Brock University student who had shadowed him.

It’s clear that cultivating the future leaders of Canada will require a more inclusive and flexible approach to talent. This will not only lead to more innovation and positive economic outcomes, but this is also our best shot at finally achieving a diverse workplace where everyone has an opportunity to thrive.

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