In Defense Of Millennial MBAs


In a recent article, Millennials were described as “modern day hippies” bent on saving the Earth with unrealistic idealism and with total disregard for the cost of doing so. For starters, I’m not sure what’s wrong with saving the planet – turn on the news for 5 minutes and then tell me it doesn’t need saving. The myth here is that Millennials are dreamers who lack focus and pragmatism.

The reality is that this generation may be the first has internalized the triple bottom line of profits, people, and community/sustainability – and they care about all three. The reason they care is because they lead values-driven lives. They want their work and their existence to have meaning, and they’re happy to spend time figuring out how to get there.

So help them – as a leader help your young employees figure out how to honor their personal values at work. There is a lot of evidence which suggests that employees who know their own values are happier and more satisfied at work – and more likely to stay with their company – than those who only know their company’s values (and not their own). Yet how many organizations have their company’s values hanging in a central gathering area, and spend more time reinforcing those with their employees than understanding what inspires them?

There’s a great free tool online, the VIA Values Sorter, which prioritizes a list of 36 values for each respondent based on their answers to a five-minute survey. While it doesn’t cover every possible value, it’s a good place to start a conversation with another person. We use this at Kelley with our Leadership Academy, and the result is a rich discussion of our differences and how we want to show up in our experiences. When our students know what is important to them, they’ll find a way to bring it into their work and lives. And they not only make a difference, but they accomplish more and are happier doing so. Help them create meaning, rather than mocking them for seeking it.


The last myth that shows up frequently is that Millennials are “disloyal” and hell-bent on leaving their employer as soon as humanly possible. Of course, if you treat them this way it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The reality is that this generation is incredibly comfortable with change – to the point that they expect to be dealing with it on a regular basis. They will leave if they get bored or if work becomes redundant – yet, I think that’s different than being inherently disloyal.

There are a variety of things to think about when leading Millennials if you hope to retain them at your company. First, embrace the fact that some of your employees like change! (I’m sure many of you have a horror story about a veteran at your firm who refuses to do things differently than they ever have.) Technology and globalization have increased the rate of change for most of our industries and this generation can be an enormous asset if you want to be able to evolve quickly. Consider giving Millennials shorter rotations/assignments than prior generations, and let them get involved in as many projects and teams as they feel like they can handle. To Millennials multi-tasking is an innate characteristic, and if it helps reduce boredom and increase engagement then load their plates.

Because work can never be void of boredom and redundancy, make sure that you’re also taking time to help them see how their efforts are helping them develop towards their goals. At Kelley we help our students create a Personal Vision, and one of the tools we use for this is the Personal Compass, from The Grove. It’s never too early to have a professional development conversation with young employees, whether or not they’ve proven that they have leadership potential. What I’ve seen is that when Millennials have an idea of where they’d like to be in 3-5 years, and a rough plan for how to get there, they will tolerate responsibilities that they might not love if they know it’s helping them build a competency. These visions and plans will evolve, so this has to be an ongoing conversation, and not just a one-time event.

That said, they very well may leave your firm – and that can be okay too. As Reid Hoffman, the Chairman of LinkedIn, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh demonstrated in their book, “The Alliance,” today’s young workforce is the most networked in history. They show how this network can be an asset to their firms – even after they leave. A former employee who feels like were valued at their last firm and that they grew during their time there, will continue to be a source of future business opportunities or new employee referrals long after they start working somewhere else. Sounds like loyalty to me.

In short, I believe Millennials are eager, humble, resourceful, creative, introspective, coachable, and loyal. They should be considered an asset in the workforce, and employers would be wise to recruit them heavily, especially in industries which experience a rapid pace of change.

Eric Johnson of Indiana University's Kelley School of Business

Eric Johnson of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business

Eric Johnson, former chief marketing officer for Eli Lilly & Co. in the United Kingdom, is director of Graduate Career Services at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

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