How the Army Recruits and Retains Millennials

Lessons from the military on making the most of your ambitious millennial workforce.

The popular image of a “millennial” employee is an app-obsessed, T-shirt clad Googler. So perhaps it is not surprising that many conversations about how to recruit and lead millennials focus narrowly on young college graduates and the tech companies that hire them.

But some employers must attract and manage a much broader swath of millennials. Perhaps few organizations face a more difficult challenge than the Army. Imagine having to recruit more than 60,000 people a year, from diverse backgrounds, for positions that may require moving far from family, letting go of a lot of civilian comforts, and perhaps even seeing combat.

“We want to keep our talent,” says Col. Robert Carr, the current Army Chief of Staff Senior Fellow at the Kellogg School. “In that sense we’re no different from corporate America. But that can be especially difficult in the military,” given the Army’s size (nearly one million active, reserve, and national guard soldiers), its physical and disciplinary qualifications, its relatively modest pay, and the competition from industries and universities for talent.

Based on his more than 20 years of military experience, Carr says that, when it comes to grooming millennials for a military career, it is important to harness young soldiers’ unique talents without compromising the culture that makes the army tick.

“Our young recruits often come up with new ways of doing things, so you want to encourage that ingenuity. And it’s not always a bad thing to challenge the status quo. The key is to give them enough latitude to shake things up a bit without upending core traditions or standard operating procedures.”

So how does a large organization like the Army strike this balance? Carr offers tips for effectively leading a millennial workforce.

Recognize Ambitions and Set Expectations

Millennials have a reputation for being impatient and demanding, and for expecting their employers to offer more flexibility. Carr says those entering the military are no exception.

“Some recruits can be very ambitious,” Carr says. “They don’t want to wait twenty years for a senior leadership role. They think, ‘I’m smart. Why can’t I be a general?’”

This level of ambition is not necessarily a bad thing—correctly channeled, it can help strengthen the organization. Carr suggests empathizing with millennials, most of whom view a stint in the Army as a means to an end—it pays for college; it guarantees benefits. But it is equally important to temper their ambition with a bit of realism about their future prospects.

For example, it is important to stress that although an Army career can lead to great opportunities down the road, the first two years might be difficult, with undesirable assignments, a lot of grunt work, and pretty low wages. Taking a longer-term view—and encouraging reenlistment—can be easier when expectations are set in advance.

“For those who put in the time and have the right dedication and aptitude, there’s more flexibility,” Carr says. “Like anyone, millennials will leave organizations unless they have good reasons to stay. So you need to give them something to aspire to.”

As important as solid pay, time off, and ideally a scenic assignment can be, for many millennials in an uncertain job market, the opportunity to receive advanced education and specialized training with transferable skills is a real motivator. Given the range of jobs one can do as a service member, the Army is in a good position to set people up for rewarding careers. But this only works if senior leaders act as positive mentors.

“If someone wants to be a satellite operator, but they only tested high enough to be a cook in their first go-around, they might need a second chance. If that person is serious, we want them to reenlist.

For leaders, encouraging reenlistment requires that they establish an environment that is both supportive and realistic about the soldier’s prospects, capitalizing on coachable moments and looking for incremental improvements.

Communicate on Their Level

One difference between millennials and other generations is that they tend to have different attitudes toward work–life balance and displays of effort. Whereas previous generations might choose to stay late in the office, or go the extra mile, millennials are more likely to budget their time efficiently without much concern for the optics.

“They’ll say, ‘I have a lot on my plate today. What should I prioritize?’”

Carr says leaders should view this as a generational difference rather than insubordination. Most young recruits, after all, care about getting the job done. They may just go about it differently than their predecessors. To see these differences in action, Carr suggests getting out from behind the desk to observe millennials in their work environments and allow them to demonstrate expertise.

“Go into their space,” he says. “Meet them where they are.”

In the Army, commanders and platoon leaders are expected to walk the halls performing equipment checks, touching base, and acknowledging the work being done. “It’s important to take the pulse of your organization, and sometimes allow people to assert their individuality. People always want to feel like they are adding value.”

And “meeting them where they are” goes beyond hall-walking. Carr suggests keeping in mind all of the newer ways people network and share expertise, including on digital platforms.  Online forums like companycommander.org and platoonleader.org create open forums in which to share ideas, not just places to gripe about—or go around—leadership. Platoon leaders often keep their own blogs, and even senior leaders are known to crowdsource better solutions.

Ultimately, leaders need to do what it takes to speak millennials’ language.

“Leaders tend to get frustrated when millennials challenge them,” Carr says. “And it’s true that some millennials can be very outspoken. But usually what they’re doing is stretching, which isn’t always a bad thing. As a senior leader, you have to have the discernment to say: ‘This millennial isn’t challenging authority; they’re challenging the way things have been done,’ which forces you to be more agile, flexible, and innovative.”

Give Them Room to Innovate

The Army is realizing that its millennial soldiers may have ingenuity and expertise that will only rise to the surface if given space. After all, important changes can come from anywhere in an organization.

When Carr was serving as a company commander stationed in a remote location in Nicaragua, he was tasked with solving a complex water-drainage problem caused by a severe hurricane. Naturally, he turned to his senior leaders, none of whom were particularly helpful. But a 19-year old vehicle operator—a truck mechanic—spoke up to say he knew how to get the job done. His platoon leader asked him to stand down. But Carr gave him the floor, and the young private, barely a year into his Army career, fixed the problem.

“He became our master trainer on drainage systems, and the leaders were his first students,” Carr says. “It takes maturity on a leader’s part to say, ‘I’m going to go down there and talk to that private and really listen, because he seems to know what he’s doing.’ In this instance, the leaders confused management with leadership.”

But it is important to know when to allow people to experiment and when to stick to the script.

“During training, you might discuss the pros and cons of going left or right when you come under fire,” Carr says. “But when there’s actual fire, the time for debating the process is over. You don’t have time to have that debate, or to ‘fail fast.’ You trust your muscle memory—so there needs to be a procedure in place.”

“You don’t want a bunch of bobbleheads who can’t think for themselves, but you do want to provide discipline and structure to the way that millennials present new ideas,” Carr says. “This gives the military a framework to honor the past, capitalize on the moment, and posture for the future.

Drew Calvert is a freelance writer based in Iowa City, Iowa. This piece was previously published in Kellogg Insight. It is republished here with permission of the Kellogg School of Management.

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