Millennials are demanding, impatient and ambitious. But whether you like it or not, your organisation needs them, says Holly Ransom.
Holly Ransom first came to global attention when she was appointed to run the G20 Youth Summit in 2014. Since then, she’s created quite a stir and brought the professional wants and needs of millennials to the attention of industry leaders and heads of government. Oh, and she also runs her own company, Emergent Solutions, specialising in the development of high-performing intergenerational workforces. She took a break from changing the world to sit with us and discuss the truth about millennials and what they really want from an employer.
Peter Wilson AM (FCPHR): You were asked to chair the Youth Summit at the G20. What were your expectations and how did it work out?
Holly Ransom: It’s an interesting one to be given because when you first get the phone call, it’s: “Can you volunteer four hours a week and can you organise a conference for 100-120 millennial leaders from around the world?” One thing that struck me, despite the fact young people have been at the table since the dawn of the G20, was why I couldn’t see evidence of that? Why wasn’t there anything other than young people flashing peace signs in photos with world leaders?
I had zero experience in government relations when I started this role. I quit my job in Perth, I moved to Melbourne, and I decided to go full-time into the volunteer capacity. The goal at that point became: Can we be the first youth summit in the history of the G20 to successfully influence a world leader’s declaration?
It was a really interesting year navigating the domestic and international political landscapes. We managed to get strong support from Obama, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, a whole bunch of international leaders – which ultimately helped in ensuring that every country’s growth and action plan wasn’t signed off without specific youth employment measures.
It was an unbelievable effort across 25 countries that did that.
PW: What did you learn from that experience?
HR: Understanding how important it was to be evidence based. We partnered with the OECD and with the World Bank to give us access to numbers. We’re saying here’s the evidence, why this matters, and here’s what this means if you re-engage young people, and here’s what this means if you don’t.
Then we had to deal with an Australian prime minister who refused to meet with us. We became the first nation hosting a G20 where the leader of the government hosting didn’t meet with young people. When you’re trying to communicate across 25 countries, and the home team captain won’t come in and bat for you, that’s hard.
On the plus side, we devoted a day at our summit to training in advocacy for all of our young leaders, so they could go back and lobby their governments and mobilise young people to get in front of their ministers.
I realised the importance of those relationships and taking that broader approach; understanding it’s not just about you and your issues, it’s about how you can work in conjunction with one another. That was absolutely critical to our success.
PW: Many were intrigued that you had a chat with Barack Obama. Did you seek advice from each other?
HR: I watched other, senior Australians talking to him who were quite tongue-tied. But, he’s so engaging and easy to talk to. He’d followed our work closely and was a huge supporter. He’d given an address at the University of Queensland the day before that was heavily focused on encouraging young people to lead and we spoke about that. He wanted to hear all about my business and talk about female entrepreneurship because, having two daughters, he’s particularly passionate about that. He was saying how much more needs to be done to support women into business and to encourage female entrepreneurs. He asked me if I had had the opportunity to work with any of the top female CEOs in the US? I was a bit cheeky and said I hadn’t Mr President, but I’d welcome the opportunity.
PW: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?
HR: Back in 2013, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. The journey back from there would be the single hardest thing that I’ve done and the thing I’m most proud of. I’m stronger, happier and more fulfilled than I’ve ever been, and it’s only because that happened. It was one of the most clarifying periods of my life, because I had to think about who I am; what do I stand for; what do I want to do. Are the things and the people in my life the right ones? What do I need to develop in myself or in the way I work to make sure that I can keep on doing what I want to do?
PW: Mental health is a huge issue with young Australians, particularly those without employment or education.
HR: Absolutely, the numbers are extraordinary. There’s still a lot of stigma associated with mental health. The moment it’s on your record you can’t get health cover. We encourage people to get support, but the reality is there are financial ramifications for getting help. There’s things like that we’ve got to look at.
PW: What do millennials think about large organisations?
HR: There’s huge distrust. It comes from a generation whose salient years have been the GFC, Enron, the BP oil spill, companies like VW. This is top of the mind for millennials. Then you add on youth unemployment, and young people have got the impression that a fundamental social contract with them has been broken.
They are burdened by levels of debt after completing an education and they’re not walking into jobs. When they do get work, they want to be somewhere where they feel valued, where there is autonomy and flexibility. Large-scale institutions haven’t adapted for a generation that has grown up in the early stage of the knowledge economy, and that’s the clash that’s playing out.
PW: What should be the strategy for engaging better with young employees?
HR: For a long time, it’s been: we’re a law firm, or we’re a bank. That’s never going to get anyone through the door anymore. Communication around the organisation and what it’s about needs to shift to make it apparent that it’s about something bigger: improving wellbeing, impacting society – and there needs to be evidence of how you live that. Young people love this David and Goliath thing. If they can bring down the giant, they will.
The other thing is understanding that work structure needs to be thought about differently. You have people wanting autonomy and flexibility, and you’ve also got a shift that’s happening towards project or portfolio-based work. In the future, I might want to have my life structured so 30 per cent of my time is here, 30 per cent of my time’s here, and then 40 per cent of it is spent here, or I want to come in and do that project for you and then leave.
Right now, the way that we employ and think about acquisition of skills, doesn’t work that way. You get people in and they climb a ladder. But you’re going to miss the best talent if you want to operate that way, because the fluidity people want, the dynamism of the way they want to work, is not supported in that structure.
PW: In some of the issues you work with daily, what are the priorities?
HR: Every week, I get scores of emails from young people who have been made redundant, or are struggling to find a job, or are back studying because nothing else is available. It’s making sure we keep the finger on the pulse of this topic, pushing our leaders to do more.
A big challenge for us – and millennials – is where our education is directing people. I’m a recovering law student. In 2013, we had 900 law graduates in WA for 200 law jobs. We oversupplied the market by 700.
Globally, we’re slipping across mathematics and science. Yet that’s at the forefront of economic competitiveness. We need to think about how we’re teaching entrepreneurship, financial literacy, communication and resilience to enable young people to weather a working world that doesn’t operate in a linear way any more.
Then there’s the role of business in creating opportunities for millennials. We’ve got the lowest completion rate in the developed world for work placement. We have to bring together universities and business to provide experience and facilitate pathways to employment. We are 33rd out of 33 in the OECD for connections between higher education institutions and business. You can’t be competitive if you’re bottom of the barrel.
PW: Is there any other message you’d like to leave us with?
HR: What can businesses do to change the landscape for millennials? Sometimes this stuff doesn’t get off the ground because it needs to be a company-wide initiative, and it will involve X budget. My point is: What can you do? Can you reach out and make the time to have coffee with the person who’s trying to get ahead? Or talk about how to get into the labour market? When your company next puts forward proposals for board members, how about suggesting someone who’s under the age of 35, because it will do wonders for your bottom line, let alone the cross-pollination it will bring into your organisation.
It’s understanding your ability to drive change. Often we don’t get out of the starting box because we make it seem harder, or bigger, more cumbersome than it needs to be.
Holly Ransom is a speaker at AHRI’s National Convention from 3 to 5 August 2016 in Brisbane. To check event details and to register, click here.