Editions : April-June 2018


A famous quote is “never apologize, never explain.” I have heard this used by a number of executives. I am not sure it’s ever worked, but with millennials, I believe that you need to apologize easily and almost always explain.

Let’s step back for a moment and consider how millennials are different from baby boomers and Generation X. This is important because boomers, like myself, and Xers run the world. As we should. We have the long experience, wisdom (in our better moments) and are held accountable as senior executives. However, the millennials (roughly 22 to 35 year olds) are more than half our work force and are beginning to move into middle management positions in many organizations, and they are, undoubtedly, the future. We need to get used to working with them and changing how we manage and lead to better align with them. The good news is, I believe, that if we do, we will end up with superior strategies that will result in a better alignment with a turbulent world and hence greater success.

Some research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology does bring some good news for us older people. According to this research, millennials feel they must be heard, they very much want to be part of the conversation, but they are happy to allow us older types to make the final decision. Thus, we can separate conversation and decision-making; this strikes me as a happy thought. Millennials are happy for us to decide as long as we listen. However, we must listen more than we used to and more than how much we were listened to when we were their age.

Later this year, my next book is coming out. It’s called “Leading, Managing, Working with Millennials.” The crossing out of “Leading” and “Managing” in the title is deliberate; those words are too strong for many millennials. Increasingly, it is more about working with them: more as peers, less like bosses. Let me give you the central argument of the book in one sentence. In the book, I argue that the worldview of university-educated millennials is broadly a postmodern worldview, while the worldview that we boomers were taught in university was a modern worldview. Thus, millennials must be led and managed, keeping their different worldview in mind. Now a key question is, how relevant is this for Indonesian millennials? I would argue that university-educated Indonesian millennials are somewhat different than my North American students, but the worldview they are taught at universities in Indonesia is firmly postmodern, so not too different. In the book, I suggest some important ways that millennials or postmoderns must be managed differently than the older generations.

The modern worldview was what we boomers were taught at university. Its central ideas included: a touching faith that science could deliver us from all our troubles; that we could continue to grow without end; that things always would get better; that there was truth with a capital T; that we could know through science and that everything, like faith, that came before us was inferior to we moderns, who were the pinnacle of humanity’s evolution. The modern worldview largely rejected that which came before it, whether it be in architecture, art, economics, faith and so forth. Modern thought was, in turn, rejected in postmodern thought, which is post, that is, after the modern worldview.

Why? Mainly because the modern worldview failed; it fell short, the world had changed its way of thinking. Postmodern thought took a very different view of things, like what is truth, who has truth, the value of science to deliver us from our problems, hierarchy, the relative importance of facts versus emotions, and the rise of micro-narratives to replace meta-narratives. There are other aspects to postmodern thought, but I chose to look at the ones that impact leadership and management.   Millennials see things differently because at university, and to a lesser degree high school, we have taught them to see things differently, at times considerably different, than their parents when they were the same age. 

However, the good news is that we have been alive, learning, reading and thinking, as this mind-set has been unfolding in our world. For most of us, the ideas are not strange or unheard of, and we, when we give it some thought, would largely agree with big parts of the thinking. We just need to more fully realize that these assumptions about the world are reality for the millennials in our work force and understand, given these assumptions, how they naturally view work, careers, managing and being managed, leading and being led. I believe when you get this, that it makes you more open to rethinking how we manage half of the work force: the millennials. A key point, which has been increasingly striking me, is that what millennials want fairly rapidly becomes what the older people want as well. Whether it is being more listened to, more flexible hours, greater freedom of choice of where and when we work, time off for fathers when their wives give birth, and so forth.  

How they want to be managed is, increasingly, how I want to be managed when I get over my initial reaction of skepticism. Let me give you an example. I had a wonderful young woman work for me full time last year. Two years before, she took a course with me, she asked if she could be my teaching assistant for the same course the next year and then was accepted to law school. She deferred law school for a year so she could work with me full time as a research associate. So I was her sole boss. In the first few weeks she worked for me, I would call her on her mobile during working hours and she would never answer! I was astonished. In my long career, if the boss calls, you answer the call. What we call in North America a “no-brainer” – that is, you don’t have to think about it, you just answer when he/she calls. But she didn’t. I thought very highly of her, so I was left feeling perplexed.

What I came to realize is that, as an introverted millennial, she would much prefer that I text her to ask her if she might call in 10 or 15 minutes to discuss a certain topic. Millennials, at least in Canada and the United States, do not actually use cellphones for calls; much more for Internet access, Instagram, Facebook, tweeting and texting. As an introvert, she wanted to think about the topic before she gave her opinion, perhaps first doing some research using Google. Which is exactly what I would want her to do; give it some thought before offering up her ideas. If she had answered my call, she would be unprepared because she had no idea why I was calling and the power was all on my side. By texting her, it allowed her to think and better balance the power relationship. This seems to be a bit of an overreaction, but when I think about it, there is some truth to it. These days, I get a bit irritated when my boss comes into my office without warning and discusses something with me. I am, compared to him, unprepared and would really have liked the chance to do a bit of research and give it some thought before we got into the discussion.

Let me outline a few parts of postmodern thought that are particularly relevant to leading and managing millennials. As I mentioned earlier, the good news is that older generations have been around the whole life of millennials, so the worldview they have been taught is one that we can understand, so it should not be too hard to take onboard their worldview so that we can be better managers of them.

One of the key elements of postmodern thought is that there is more truth with a small “t” than there used to be, and that there are many more and diverse sources of truth than there used to be. In the past, the professor at the front of the class was the definitive source of knowledge – we had truth with a capital “T.” No more. Some think there is no truth; I will not go that far, but I think that most of us could agree that truth is more diverse than it used to be. Things have and are changing much more quickly than in the past. In business, we talk a great deal about disruptive business models such as Uber or Airbnb, which are throwing many industries into turmoil. Big businesses that have been very profitable for many years are finding – at least parts of their formerly very successful businesses – that they are being successfully attacked by upstart startups. When you talk to entrepreneurs, they often talk about how they have to regularly pivot in order to find their sweet spot. Of course, the considerable majority of startups fail; they never find a sweet spot that leads them to short-term, let alone long-term, profitability. For older people, this means the “truths” we learned early in our business careers are largely, though not entirely, no longer relevant. Much of what I learned working for IBM in the 1980s and 1990s is simply not relevant for today’s turbulent business world. Perhaps it is painful to say that, but it is the reality.

Truth is not only about scientific evidence, but also about my own personal experience: what we might call my story. Today, my students honestly believe that their story is almost as good, or as good, as mine. There is a considerably diminished sense of hierarchy in class. It is not entirely gone, particularly since I grade the papers and exams. More and more, we are flipping the classroom, where lectures are viewed on video and the classroom is given over to the students to discuss things, with the professor simply less important than in the past. When they come to work, they bring this same view of lessened hierarchy and more variety in who has the truth and the importance of personal experience. I considerably agree with these views. Not entirely, but it can often be off-putting to those who grew up a generation ago; this approach stands in considerable contrast to the modern thought that my fellow boomers were brought up on.

In the modern worldview of truth, you never had to explain, because as the senior person in the hierarchy, you had the truth; you were in charge, you had the power, you were the big dog. My sense is that this one hierarchical view of absolute truth is simply beyond passé. Ironically, the truth of the matter is that we all have truth to some degree, and my millennial employees have views that are more “with it” and often more valuable than mine.

Not only humbly, but perhaps importantly, realistically, I need to seriously listen to my much younger employees if we are going to perform well in today’s turbulent business environment. This goes back to whether you think your industry is a changing one. If it is not changing, then the “deliberate school of strategy,” popularized by Harvard University’s Michael Porter, with its familiar Five Forces, three generic strategies and so forth, is one that you can use. This is often an exercise where the chief executive officer and a few chosen others, along with consultants from McKinsey, BCG or Bain & Company, spend a weekend away coming up with the strategy, which is then shared in an inspiring way by the CEO, and the rest of us implement it.

If, however, you are in a more turbulent environment, which I strongly believe we are seeing more of, then you must move toward the “emergent school of strategy,” popularized by my McGill colleague, Henry Mintzberg. This school argues that strategy is more apt to emerge from frontline troops working on real-world issues with real customers and their real problems. In order to solve these messy problems, cross-functional groups work together and hence come up with new potential strategies. Top management’s job is not to have the ideas for new strategies, but rather to be able to spot a new idea, which they just resource and spread throughout the organization. This is a relief to those who are in the C-suite: they realize that they often just don’t have the silver bullets that more junior people think they have. This learning from more junior people who are closer to the turbulent environment is something that very much resonates with how strategy works today in many industries. The net result is that millennials are often the source of new strategies and approaches because they are boundary spanners, with a foot in the turbulent environment and a foot in the organizations where they work. Although, as the MIT research mentioned earlier suggests, they are happy for us to decide what shape the final strategy takes.

Given this world, I believe that older people must be reverse-mentored 20 to 30 percent of the time. When I was in my 20s, mentoring was largely one-way, and even today, with my two mentors now in their 70s, it still works that way. Today, I have six undergraduate students who work for me. They mentor me weekly, because there are things they know that I don’t understand in the way they do, and I need their help to understand the turbulent, changing world we operate in. 

I once co-taught at Duke University with Gen Martin Dempsey, who went on to become the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff – probably the most senior general in the world. One of the things Gen Dempsey said that really stuck with me was: “Generals fight the battles of their youth.” What he meant was that generals, or C-suite executives, in business terms, too often base their strategic and leadership thinking on compelling lessons learned in their 20s and early 30s, and those lessons were often taught by leaders based on lessons taught them by leaders from the generation before. But when they become generals in their late 40s and 50s, those lessons are largely not relevant. In Dempsey’s case, he was a 22-year-old lieutenant out of West Point when he was responsible for a tank in the Cold War on the plains of Germany. He was taught compelling leadership/strategy lessons by generals who learned their lessons in the Vietnam War as young officers. Finally, Dempsey was first a general during Operation Desert Storm; what he is saying is that the lessons from Vietnam and the Cold War were largely – not entirely – irrelevant for Desert Storm. War and leadership had evolved. The same is true for many C-suite executives in many, but not all, industries. Although, in my teaching and consulting experience, I am hard pressed to think of an industry that is not going through considerable if not massive change.

The first point, then, is that I have to listen more than in the past, not just because it comes across well, but also because as a good businessperson, I must have my strategies up to date and in better alignment with the world in which my business is trying to compete. And if you don’t listen to millennials, you are a jerk; in their view, you are arrogant and unwilling to learn.

Second, we must explain our decisions much more than in the past. I need to explain virtually every significant decision because millennials want to – almost must – hear it from me. At the same time, I need their reactions, insights and ideas on how to improve my thinking to be more in line with what is actually happening. I need to learn to take their input and pivot off in somewhat, or sometimes considerably, different directions than I thought.

Recently, I had to miss a class – something I have not done in 20 years of undergraduate teaching, other than for my mother's funeral. In the distant past, I would have just told them I would not be there and leave it at that. Not today. I explain what I am doing and why. If I am embarrassed to do so, I probably should not be doing what I am thinking of doing.

Even more fundamentally, I genuinely want their input on things to improve my ideas, strategies and new directions. Two heads are better than one, so why wouldn't five heads be better than one? So these days, I explain virtually everything I am going to do and then be quiet, listen and recalibrate. Real-world input makes a world of difference. Of course, occasionally there is something rightly confidential that I do not or cannot explain. Nevertheless, I’ve found that if you explain most things, millennials are forgiving and understanding in instances when you can’t; they have learned to trust you.

“Never apologize” just sounds so arrogant in today's world. We are all imperfect; we all fall short. Apologizing easily and quickly is what millennials want, and I absolutely agree with them. It is just plain common sense and appropriate to have humility in 2018. Think of all the arrogant men caught up in sexual harassment; not only do mere apologies not suffice, but their apologies have generally rung hollow and only turned more people against them. Millennials appreciate heartfelt apologies because they reflect humility.

We older generations are in charge, and that is largely fine. However, we need to realize that at times, we are a bit out of touch with today’s values. We must be willing to learn new approaches, with the good sense to realize that they are generally, although not always, right for today’s world. So today, we should be listening more, be willing to easily apologize, and almost always, with rare exceptions, explain. Millennials will like you for it, and better business results will generally ensue, if we are willing to humbly take on board their real-world input to help mold a better business strategy. And that’s why we pay you the big bucks – to get it more right in today’s increasingly turbulent business world. 


Karl Moore is an associate professor at and McGill University an associate fellow at Green Templeton College, Oxford University.

Please login to leave a comment