It is time to empower the millennial generation

November 3, 2013

Winston Churchill once said, “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”

Last week I spoke to an audience of amazing leaders at the Northern Virginia Technology Council. In discussing the wildly underestimated and misunderstood millennial generation, I urged my colleagues to take Churchill’s advice to heart.

Looking back on my own beginnings in Amityville, Long Island, I was impatient for opportunities to do great things. I worked hard, focused on my customers and refused to allow people or conventional wisdom to hold me back. I wanted the businesses I worked for to stand for something and to take an active interest in building my career to its fullest potential.

Why does it surprise any of us that millennials want these same things? It shouldn’t.

The pressure is now on us not only to understand this new generation, but to totally unleash them. They already represent our most significant opportunity as the world’s largest purchasing class and will, by 2025, be 75 percent of the public and private sector workforce. They’re the first generation born into the mobile device, and they have a sincere desire to use their talents for more than just personal success. They also have a voracious hunger for intelligent data on any subject in real time.

Their impact on the workplace is exceeded only by their disruption of established markets. The respected futurist, Peter Diamandis, calls it “dematerialization” – this idea that products that used to consume space have been completely consumed by digitization. It was true in books and music, and is now moving to things such as GPS units and even flashlights.

So here’s the challenge I made to the Washington region’s technology industry: Embrace disruptive innovation as a tool to empower the millennial generation.

Here are four keys to building cultures that can do it:

First, let’s get back to asking questions. Hal Gregersen is a dynamic researcher on innovation. His conclusion is a simple and powerful at once: We raise people out of our natural inclination to ask lots of questions. I call it a curiosity deficit. No place is this worse than big corporate environments where employees think asking questions is akin to risking their jobs. So encourage questions. Reward questions.

Second, when it comes to recruiting our future leaders, take the long view. At SAP, we have amazing relationships with 1,600 universities. We’re invested in teaching these brilliant young minds about our software innovation so that when they graduate, they’re ready to assume challenging opportunities with our company, our partners or our customers. We need to stop this idea of getting talent by stealing it. Millennials want careers, so let’s start early and build them.

But it’s not enough to find them early. Once we have them in our organizations, we need to push these young professionals early into big challenges. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy said we’d put a man on the moon and bring him back safely. To accomplish it, he trusted a team of brilliant engineers. Average age in that program: 26. So let’s come to terms with the reality that they can handle big assignments and actually put them on the spot.

Finally, we must get over the idea that social media is only about birthdays and what your friends had for breakfast. It has become the gateway to the wisdom of the crowd — a new strain of ideation that will help burst the CEO bubble. The rarefied air of the C-suite is far from the best place to innovate. We’re already seeing this crowdsourcing trend in advertising with start-ups like Poptent. They’ll literally take the needs of a major global brand and source possible commercials from brilliant young filmmakers. If companies can source their brand identity like this, it’s a safe bet there are ideas in every company hidden by a failure to extract them.

The opportunity here is stunning. At a moment when the world’s greatest challenges are our biggest opportunities, if we equip millennials with the best technology and empower them with permission to be bold, I think we’ll watch the next greatest generation do incredible things.

Bill McDermott is the co-chief executive of the business software giant SAP.

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