“You never know till you try to reach them how accessible men are; but you must approach each man by the right door.”
– Henry Ward Beecher
I’m writing this in response (to the responses, I suppose) of a Proceedings article on Millennials written by CDR Darcie Cunningham, USCG, which lays out the ways in which Millennials are inherently unsuited for military service. The points she raised are echoed in the comments and responses to her article and frankly to the opinions of many of the senior leaders whom I’ve heard discuss the topic. The counter arguments, often penned by Millennial Officers, focus on discounting the arguments without actually looking at the problem from a positive aspect; addressing what the writer gets wrong rather than what the Millennials do right.
The Navy has been my life and home for over 23 years. As a proud Generation Xer, I too watched with dismay as the new generation of Millennials entered the service. Like many Gen X types, I more than once found myself fuming, and saying things along the lines of “Just do your job, what do you want a medal?” or something similar in the snarky language that defines our generation. Over the years, and in particular over the course of my command tour, I have come to realize that this new group of young men and women not only are worthy of respect, but in many ways offer the Navy an opportunity for improvement, provided we commit to both understanding this group, and adjusting our leadership styles to match their desires. First, we old folks need to get over ourselves and chuck the rose colored glasses when looking back at our junior officer days. Second, we need to look at the Millennial Officers for what unique qualities they bring to our organization. Finally, we must understand their equities so we can adjust how we deal with them in order to maximize their potential.
Now, for the purposes of this article and ease of language I will refer strictly to officers in the naval service, but these experiences also hold true for the Sailors with whom I’ve served, and I imagine are applicable across any military service.
The problems described in CDR Cunningham’s article will hardly seem generationally unique if we are honest with ourselves. Seeking to scam off the ship early is a time-honored and expected junior officer behavior. I’m sure I am not the only person to remember the concept of “liberty for the brave.” More fundamentally, given our increasing operational tempo, what value is there to keeping people at work once the work is done? Similarly, informality among first tour officers and a desire by these officers to receive positive feedback is hardly new. On the other hand, the sort of hard partying and behaviors preferred by previous generations are not found in today’s junior officers, through a combination of generational conservatism and increasingly harsh penalties for transgressions. How many of today’s commanders and captains could achieve their positions had camera phones existed in the 1980s and early 1990s in liberty ports around the globe? As for the comments about being delayed in promotion, there are many in my generation whose promotions were delayed due to the Tailhook scandal, including branches of the Navy who couldn’t have attended anyhow! The fact is that junior officers are, and always have been, works in progress. It is our job as leaders not to stifle them, but to learn what drives them, and what they need from us as leaders to develop to their full potential.
Fundamentally, the Millennial Officer offers significant opportunities that are not found in the current crop of generations in our maritime workplace, whether the Baby Boomers with their combination of workaholic tendencies and a firm belief that nobody works as hard as them, to my generation of cynics who feel like they are picking up the mess left behind from the Boomers. This new cohort has a combination of positivity, openness, and general fairness that make them very suited to leadership in a military environment. The average Millennial:
- Possesses a true belief in the greatness and opportunity offered by America and the future.
- Desires to be part of something meaningful, and greater than themselves and to work for a cause in the name of a greater good.
- Feels deeply committed to family and community.
- Believes themselves to be truly multicultural, able to work with people of any background, whether social, economic, or cultural. They accept and value the differences found in groups.
- Values working with a team more so than working alone.
- Is unafraid of technology or of change.
- Values results over effort
All of these identifiers of this generation are seemingly custom fit for working and eventually leading within an organization such as the Navy, which values commitment, teamwork, and diversity, and which embraces modern technology. So why wouldn’t we want them as our future leaders?
All existing generations believe that the follow on generations aren’t as good as them, and expect them to conform to the old way of doing business. As military leaders, however, we must hold ourselves to the concept of servant leadership; namely that the leader exists to serve the people under their command. In particular with the Naval Services, ensuring your people are properly trained, equipped, and motivated will ensure mission success. Doing this, however, requires today’s leaders to change our methods, since the levers that motivated our generation do not work on the current one. Failure to adjust means that we will be stuck looking to only locate people who fit into our narrow mold, vice becoming an organization that draws in the Millennial. So how do we accomplish this?
- Make a compelling case for why their service to the country matters. The Navy appears to understand this concept broadly given the recruiting campaign to be a “Global Force for Good,” but in practice this becomes harder to define. In an ideal world our leadership would only ask for deployments and sacrifice on items truly in the obvious national interest, however as long as there has been a Navy ships have been globally deployed to exert national influence and to provide our government with military options around the globe. Leaders have to find a way to adequately articulate why this matters. For instance, prior to my deployment in command to the 5th Fleet area of responsibility, I used the pre-deployment family training session to not talk solely about support services for the families while we were away, but also spent a good chunk of time describing the recent history and geography of the area, and did my best to explain the value of our continued presence in the area, and talked to them about how to read the news while we were gone. The response from this brief from the mothers, wives, and children of my Sailors was overwhelmingly positive, many remarking that they never understood why their men had to go away before that night. Linking their sacrifice to value is critical for motivating and retaining the Millennial Officer.
- Since families matter, the command must make a concerted effort to not merely pay lip service to caring for families, but actually expend reasonable command effort to live up to these expectations. This means doing everything possible to ensure parents are together for births, giving the crew time off from work to complete deployment preps months – not days – in advance, or frequently hosting family friendly events where the command team is present and engaged, to name a few examples. In particular in this era of cutbacks of services traditionally supported on base, a command team must commit to caring for families. Note that in today’s world this means engaging the parents as well, who remain an integral part of many young adult Millennials’ lives.
- A leader must be personable, and actually care for their people. Remember that this generation has been raised with their parents as their friends. Authority figures may not have been a part of their lives to this point. This means that as a leader you will need to balance being firm and setting expectations with being approachable. If you don’t show sincere concern for their personal lives and development, and make a connection with your people, the Millennial will not want to work for you. This means allowing more informality into the relationship than may have been expected 20 years ago when we were junior officers; as long as there are clear and defined standards being greeted below decks with “Hi Captain” vice “Good morning, sir/ma’am” will not jeopardize good order and discipline.
- Senior leadership should be ready for unrealistic expectations, and work with their people to turn these into a realistic plan. One of the defining traits of this generation is huge aspirations with little idea of how to get there. If dismissed and left unchecked this will drive down retention since our brightest and most ambitious officers will depart the service in pursuit of their grand goal. Frequent counseling and career reviews are critical to understanding where your people see themselves in five or ten years. Knowing their goals and understanding their personal lives as described earlier will allow leaders the opportunity to steer the individuals into a path to success. In my experience, this needs to be done whether the officer decides to stay in or leave the Navy. Full support of a departing officer’s goals will help convince the others that you truly have their best interests at heart.
Every generational shift is accompanied by the same resistance to change from older generations. Establishing a dialog that accentuates the positive aspects of generational divides vice using positional authority to reject these same issues is critical to the long term health of any organization, even one as traditionally resistant to change as the Navy. The Millennial generation represents the future of this nation, and brings dramatically different values to any organization. Embracing these values, and working with vice against this generation, will improve our readiness for the coming, challenging years.