Attract Emerging Leaders with Purpose, not Perks

By Brett Beasley

Millennials have been called the “job-hopping generation.” But research reveals that Millennials are loyal and engaged when companies offer them ways to grow and make a difference.



Attract Emerging Leaders with Purpose


What do emerging leaders want? That is the million dollar question—in fact, it may be a hundred billion dollar question. Millennials (those born between 1980 and 1996) are now the largest generation in the workforce, and companies are waging an expensive war to attract the most promising leaders among their ranks. The war is often waged with perks. Some companies offer creative perks like on-site acupuncture, free travel, and nap pods in an attempt to lure talented Millennials with work/life balance and a fun, positive corporate culture.

But these efforts are often misguided and ineffective. Gallup finds that just 18% of Millennials say finding a “fun place to work” is extremely important to them. Meanwhile 55% of Millennials are disengaged at work, and 60% say they are open to a new job opportunity. Turnover among Millennials costs the U.S. economy $30.5 billion each year. And Millennials' lack of engagement in the workplace costs U.S. companies upwards of $284 billion annually (Gallup).

So, if perks aren’t the answer, what can companies do to attract, retain, and engage young leaders?

Recent research from Gallup’s study How Millennials Want to Work and Live reveals that what Millennials are really looking for in the workplace is a sense of purpose. For many Millennials, a sense of purpose shows up in the form of training and development opportunities. Nearly 60% say the chance to learn and grow is extremely important to them in looking for a new job (compared to only 44% of Gen-Xers and 41% of Baby Boomers). Millennials gravitate toward managers that act as coaches who take a personal interest and guide them as they develop their strengths, and they tend to reject bosses who simply assign tasks and rarely or never offer constructive feedback. Gallup has found that 70% of Millennials who feel strongly that their manager focuses on their strengths are engaged, and when their manager focuses on their weaknesses, that number falls to 39%. So invest in Millennials as people. Make sure you offer training and mentoring to help young leaders develop their skills and competencies.

Purpose can also manifest itself in another form: personal connection to an important cause. The 2017 Deloitte Millennial Survey found that Millennials tend to feel a relatively high sense of accountability when it comes to “big issues” like protecting the environment and fighting social inequality. (For example, 59% of Millennials feel accountable for protecting the environment, but only 38% believe they have a significant level of influence on the issue.) Thus “it is primarily in and via the workplace that they feel most impactful.”


The good news is that offering a sense of purpose in your organization may not be as difficult or costly as you think. Use these three tips to create a more Millennial-friendly workplace:


  • Think small. Although Millennials feel a strong sense of responsibility to address the “big issues” facing society, they crave a personal connection to these causes. Focus on concrete ways to empower Millennials and give them a sense of influence. For example, Deloitte’s Millennial Survey shows that Millennials feel a greater sense of influence over internal charities than over external charities and activists. So instead of trying to address a big issue like social inequality or climate change head on, focus on producing a local, small-scale impact that your employees can take pride in. Sometimes, it may be as simple as being more vocal about the impact of your employees’ contribution: Gallup finds that only 26% of Millennials say that in the past week, they have heard someone talk about how their daily work connects with their organization’s mission.

  • Personalize your organization’s values. Research suggests that Millennials may have less value for formal codes of conduct than previous generations particularly when they feel no personal connection to the values. Ask yourself, “Are our values in the words of a previous generation that no longer represents the majority of our employees?” Remember, you don’t just need your employees to know what the company believes; you need them to take ownership of your values enough to act on them. Rebecca VanMeter and colleagues recommend crafting “ethics training programs for Millennials in ways that allow them to establish their own footprints.”

  • Offer flexibility. It turns out that one perk really does matter: flexibility. Flexibility is crucial because it signals trust. Among Millennials, flexible working has been shown to increase a sense of accountability in many areas. 33% of Millennials with flexible working conditions say they take a great deal of accountability over the ethical behavior and integrity of their organization. But in organizations with a low level of flexible working, that number drops to just 14%. Millennials want a combination of flexibility and stability. When you display your trust, you create a firm foundation that encourages your employees to commit for the long term.


Millennials have developed a reputation as “the job-hopping generation.” But not only is this label unfair (Millennials don’t actually switch jobs more often than Gen-Xers did), it fails to capture something important about what emerging leaders are really looking for. Emerging leaders have a desire for loyalty and stability that increases with each passing year. Many are simply unwilling to trust a company that does not invest in them or connect them to the causes they care about.


Jessica McManus Warnell, associate teaching professor at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business and author of the book Engaging Millennials for Ethical Leadership points out that “this is good news for the future of business. Millennials’ expressed interests and preferences align well with what we know works for fostering successful, ethical organizations.” So if your organization can provide a sense of purpose through personal development and can give emerging leaders a tangible role in a cause that matters to them, you can win the war for talent without breaking the bank and build a more ethical organization at the same time.


Further Reading

Key Points

  • Turnover and lack of engagement among Millennials cost U.S. companies hundreds of billions of dollars each year.
  • Emerging leaders are looking for purpose at work, not perks.
  • Connect young leaders to a sense of purpose through coaching/mentoring relationships and by giving them a tangible role in solving a problem they care about.




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