The challenge of leading the millennial generation | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
Contributing writer

Last Friday afternoon I was fortunate enough to make time to attend the Western Washington University Business Summit, an annual event hosted by the College of Business and Economics. The topic for the afternoon was entrepreneurism and innovation and focused on a panel that included three local entrepreneurs and one professional manager/former would be entrepreneur. This group was offered the opportunity to respond to a number of questions regarding their passion and vision and of course the question that has yet to be finally answered, are entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

Let’s be clear, entrepreneurism and innovation are hot topics, you might even call them trendy. Although the sure fire path to innovation remains a conundrum one thing we do know is that entrepreneurs, when they are in full flight, create opportunities for others to be employed and job creation in America is on everyone’s agenda if not for themselves certainly for their children.

To my satisfaction the three entrepreneurs on the panel agreed with me, entrepreneurs are very likely born and born in limited numbers. Maybe not born like from the womb but as the sum of their life experiences they arrive at the adult stage of life with a burning desire to make something happen, something big. You might recall the quote from Steve Jobs; “I want to put a ding in the universe!”

This idea of entrepreneurs being born versus developed has been debated and will continue to be because Americans love the notion that we can be anything we want to be with hard work and blah, blah, blah. OK, knock yourself out with that if you want.

Meanwhile, I am also pretty sure from personal experience that a desire to own your own business or at least not work for anybody else does not make you an entrepreneur. (That would be me) I am just as certain that there is a difference between having an “entrepreneurial spirit” and being an entrepreneur. The case for this last assertion was made by the fourth member of Friday’s panel, an admittedly “reformed entrepreneur” who had thought himself to be one early in life only to find that he didn’t have the constitution to deal with the inevitable failures inherent in the entrepreneurial life cycle.

Rather than answer the knotty questions about entrepreneurs being born or made employers need to turn their attention to more practical matter of promoting an environment of innovation. By that I mean encouraging the expression of an entrepreneurial spirit in their businesses and attracting the very talented millennial generation.

In late 2011, William Deresiewicz wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times titled “Generation Sell.” In this piece Deresiewicz takes us through his analysis of the millennial generation that seems to be so troubling to work with or even understand for many managers today. His central thesis is that this is a generation of entrepreneurs.

While I do not to agree with Deresiewicz I do see merit in his observation that the Millennials operate with, “a distrust of large organizations, including government, as well as the sense, a legacy of the last decade, that it’s every man for himself.”

So their entrepreneurial inclinations are driven as much from a self-preservation strategy as the previous generation’s were driven by the desire for security.

While entrepreneurial in nature, many of the Millennials are really “tweakers” and most continue to work in our mainstream organizations. They literally walk among us, having learned how to play the game by developing an ability to fit in rather than drop out and assume the risks and responsibilities of business ownership.

Given the premium many employers still place on compliance it is likely that we have not tapped the entrepreneurial instincts of this generation and likely as not this is why they will eventually leave us, not necessarily to start their own businesses but in hopes of finding an environment that welcomes their creativity. As managers we might do ourselves an enormous favor by asking not how we can get them to be like us but rather how can we give them reason to stay and invest themselves in our future.

In an article titled “The Tweaker,” Malcolm Gladwell identifies the difference between inventor and “tweaker.” By his definition, “The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world. The tweaker inherits things as they are, and has to push and pull them toward some more nearly perfect solution. That is not a lesser task.”

Turning our Millennial employees loose to “tweak” may seem like an invitation to chaos. However, it also may just be a formula for the engagement and retention of our best and brightest.

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He publishes a semi-weekly blog at and also facilitates a monthly business book reading group at Village Books.

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