Whose job is it to motivate millennials?

Millions upon millions of people have watched Simon Sinek’s video, Millennials in the Workplace. And quite a few have already written up their responses. Here’s mine.

TL;DR version: if in fact you have the benefit of being choosy about which company to work for, it’s your job to first figure out what your purpose is, and then find a company that’s in alignment. As a manager, it’s your job to connect your employees’ day-to-day experience with the company’s larger purpose, and to tell them either that they’re doing a good job, or what it would take to get there. Better still, give them the metrics and tools to figure that out for themselves.


My boss posted this to Facebook saying it was the most spot-on thing he’d seen regarding millennials, so I hit play:

I found Simon’s personality so hard to stomach that I could barely get the whole way through. His tone here is just so darn authoritative, condescending, and void of humility. Truly gifted leaders, in my experience, often project the opposite, and actually exhibit curiosity about and genuine empathy with the subjects of their attention.

Millennials always “want a trophy,” even if they’re doing a terrible job, he claims. Sorry, just not resonating.

The aggressively snarky tone of this response, This Millennial Rant Deserves A Trophy For Being Most Wrong, also irks me, but author Mike Hill does get to quite a few well-articulated critiques of Simon’s viral hit, with an astute analysis of why the media so loves to keep promoting it with click-baity language. I appreciate his use of statistics, including those related to unemployment (in the US, millennials comprise 40% of the unemployed) and the effects of the macroeconomic environment that millennials (and everyone else) find themselves in. And he cites sources to those numbers that inform his beef with Simon’s vague generalizations.

Better yet, he digs in about the self-serving nature of Simon’s “it’s their problem, but I know how to fix it” approach:

It’s suspicious that a man whose livelihood revolves around being paid to solve problems in the workplace is telling us that there’s a big new problem in the workplace that needs to be solved…. Complaining about millennials is an industry now. Those angry headlines generate clicks, and Simon is far from the only person to have written a cash-grab book about how to “manage millennials,” as if they’re self-centered aliens who just arrived on the planet.

Of Course Simon is going to spin things in a way that a manager can easily label the challenges they’re experiencing as a generational difference… so that they can then conveniently come to the conclusion that they need to HIRE Simon to help them solve the problem,.

All in all, the article provided a good counterpoint that confirmed my own immediate conclusion that Simon is not an “expert” for me. He doesn’t address complexity At All. He doesn’t get the current economic climate, or that not everyone can even find a job, much less one that motivates them. He certainly doesn’t get how to build rapport with someone like me. I moved on.


Except that a couple weeks later, I hadn’t moved on. I was still thinking about Simon’s take on Purpose and Trophies, and how both relate to my own career path. He made me think long and hard about who’s responsible for what in the employer / employee relationship. While I don’t agree with his perspectives or delivery, he certainly sparked some critical thinking of my own, and for that I’m grateful.

Recognizing that any advice designed for an entire generation is ridiculous, even if you are a member of said generation, I’m going to present this is career advice for myself:

I’m a big fan of people defining their purpose, so that part wasn’t a stretch for me. But I don’t believe it’s a company’s or manager’s job to “help” an employee discover their own purpose. If I want my job to be connected to their purpose, it’s up to me to first figure out what my own purpose is (hey! Simon’s writing another book to help with that! Or hire a coach, or just sit under a tree for a bit for free?) and then do some homework.

Research how the company I’m considering working for actually performs and behaves according to what I think is important… regardless of what the company website says. What do recent company decisions reveal about their values? What do people who work there observe in the day-to-day? What do I really think their products or services are doing for their customers, the world? I hope that millennials, or people of any age for that matter, will learn to develop a healthy skepticism around what a company says about their “mission” and “purpose.” They may have just hired Simon (or let’s be fair, some other consultant) to help them write something that sounds good, whether or not it’s actually rooted in anything.

If all seems like a good fit — which is to say, if I believe that this company’s purpose does align with my own, then get an interview and grill my would-be employer with tough questions that will test that hypothesis. As a nod to Mike Hill’s statistics about the current economic situation, let’s acknowledge that every step I’ve written here is likely only available to people who have the privilege of time to complete them, plus the privilege of having had the upbringing, experience, or connections (etc) that enable one to land those interviews in the first place.

On the whole “I want trophies” piece (I’m paraphrasing, and I think I’m actually too old to be a millennial): after a week and a half of resistance to the idea, I finally admitted to myself that I ABSOLUTELY want trophies, all the time. But not for the reasons Simon explains. I DIDN’T get them as a kid, despite doing everything “right,” b/c my brother was deemed “the problem child” and got all the attention .

But just because I want trophies doesn’t mean I expect them from my manager or the company I work for.

What I DO expect from my manager is a Very Clear Definition of how to define success in my role. If I care and if I’ve done my homework per the exercise above, these are probably already aligned with my Purpose at the company level – but I may still need my manager to talk me through how my exact role links back to the bigger picture company strategy and priorities.

Once those are clear, then either check in with me regularly to “give me a trophy” (eg, tell us we’re achieving our goals, as a team or a company or whatever). And if we need to change course, let’s talk through the why/how so I have that context and can use my creativity to help problem-solve.

AND/OR even better, as I’m that kind of geek: please give me the keys to the metrics so that I can see for myself whether or not I’m doing a good job. That way I can give myself the trophies and nobody has to resent that I’m lazy and listless and whatever else millennials are supposed to be.


So there you have it; all of this explains, in part, how I found myself at Xero. It also explains, in part, how I aspire to manage my half of my relationship with my boss. At the moment, however, the only thing I want from my boss is an explanation of what he saw in Simon’s video, because while I’m curious to hear what he appreciated that I missed, there’s no way I’m watching it again.