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5 Lessons from the Rio OlympicsOn the heels of the Summer Olympic Games that were overflowing with hard-working, committed, and successful athletes who are almost all millennials, I began thinking about my generation and the ongoing conversation about millennials’ tendencies in the workplace.

It is no secret that organizations and executives everywhere are scratching their heads trying to figure out what to do with the soon-to-be majority of their workforce: the millennials. As a talent management professional, someone who studied millennials for her Master’s thesis and, most importantly, a millennial, I am deeply interested in this growing dialogue and how it has taken shape over the past few years.

So what about these incredible Olympic athletes who mostly fall into the age range of my so-called lazy, disloyal, noncommittal, and self(ie)-loving generation? Athletes such as Canada’s medalists Erica Wiebe (age 27), Derek Drouin (age 26) and Andre De Grasse (age 21), as well as the US stars Aly Raisman (age 22), Simone Manuel (age 20), and Ashton Eaton (age 28), are all celebrated and accomplished millennials. Given their stark contrast to the adjectives so often associated with “Generation Me”, I believe that sport warrants further investigation to uncover what it might be doing right to grow, develop, and support highly successful millennials… and why that matters to our organizations.

Growing up as an athlete, I spent my formative years on the pitch, the court, and the ice working to achieve my goals – battling through injury and adversity for the games that I loved. I often think about why I loved sport and how that relates to the work, the leadership, and the organizations that I am passionate about today. When I look at the parallels, I truly believe that sport is getting it right when it comes to engaging and developing millennials – and there are certainly a few things that we can learn from it.

Engaging Millennials

Over the last few weeks, as I watched old teammates and new national heroes fight to achieve their goals, the following lessons came to mind as critical drivers of millennial success, both on and off the pitch:

1. Loyalty

When you make the team, you make the team. Plain and simple.

In a world where contract hires are seemingly more common than salaried ones, and the “restructure” haunts the dreams of junior staff, loyalty at work is hard to come by. In contrast, in sports, once you try out and make the team, you’re in. You may not be on the starting lineup, but you’re certainly not scared of being kicked off the team before the season ends. In sport, I gave my blood, sweat, and tears for my team knowing that any one of them (my coach included), would do the same for me.

Can organizations today confidently say that they would do the same for their employees? The great companies, sure. But those who are wondering why their millennials are half way out the door need to realize that they may be part of the problem.

To fix this problem, it’s important to note that loyalty doesn’t just mean a full-time permanent spot on a roster. For me, in sport, loyalty also meant delivering a punishing hit on someone who took a cheap shot at my teammate. Loyalty meant, as the captain, taking ownership for a loss even though I may have had a great game. Loyalty meant having my team’s back, in good times and in bad.

As organizations, managers and teammates, we need to operate the same way. If one of my staff makes a mistake, it’s my mistake. If someone treats my staff unfairly, they have treated me unfairly – and they’re going to hear about it. Knowing that your leaders and teammates are in your corner is a powerful thing that will make anyone’s commitment levels skyrocket, especially those of the millennials.

2. Structure (…with Flexibility)

Millennials have grown up in an over-structured, over-scheduled, and overbearing world. From play-dates and chores to timetables and family calendars, it is all we have ever known. Similarly, in most sports, there is a structure – a system, a flow, or a loose set of rules that you operate within. The unique trait of this generation is that although we need structure, we also crave the opportunity for growth. This is where I think sport truly speaks to millennials as it offers the freedom to make decisions within the bounds of the system. This is a sweet spot for developing and engaging millennials: flexibility within a framework.

millennials coachingTo support this, at SMG, we are seeing a trend in which millennials score lower on their independence-orientation (i.e. they prefer structured environments), yet there is no indication of a decreased desire to innovate, be proactive, and adapt to change. This is the millennial way. We like having a playbook, but we also want the freedom to create and innovate within those bounds.

A perfect example of this is Canada’s Olympic medal-winning Women’s Rugby 7s team. By watching just a few minutes, you can identify that the players are operating within a structure, yet they still have the autonomy to break through the line, kick up-and-over, or attack the blindside if the opportunity presents itself.

3. Regular Feedback

In athletics, you would never show up to practice 5 days a week and only receive feedback from your coach once or twice over the course of the season. The sheer concept seems absurd. So why is it that we still believe bi-annual performance reviews are enough to keep all employees, let alone millennials, feeling positive about their progress?

Athletics are about growth. After all, practice wouldn’t exist if they weren’t. Can’t we look at work as an opportunity for growth as well? Millennials crave development and are eager to learn, yet many encounter silent managers while they show up trying to get better every day. I have never known a coach to be quiet at practice (I certainly am not), so why do organizations shy away from giving regular feedback?

Even on game day at the Olympics, coaches can be seen providing last-minute and ongoing suggestions to their players to help them edge out their competition. It may be as small as a tip to help them improve their positioning or a “great job” for a well-executed play, but it goes a long way.

4.  Coaching

We’ve heard this time and again in the research about millennials, but I cannot bring myself to skip it because it truly is that important. Millennials want coaches, not managers.

What I find very interesting is that every team I ever played for had both a team manager and a team coach. The manager dealt with the transactional, day-to-day things that needed to get done for the team to run smoothly while the coach focused on development, strategy, and the players. Although both roles begin with setting a structure to get things done, coaches provide a system in which to innovate and excel whereas managers tend to use structure as a way to control and confine.

When I think back on the most influential people in my life – those who truly impacted my development – not a single “manager” comes to mind. Those who shaped me as an athlete and professional have always been those who coached me along the way. The coaching approach is what driven and high-achieving millennials respond to.

Indeed, a recent survey of working millennials uncovered that, ideally, they “would like to see their boss as a coach who supports them in their personal development”. During meetings with leaders, they don’t want to talk about their to-do list, they want to talk about what they are already doing well and what they can do to improve.

5. Opportunity to Stand Out

Last but certainly not least, millennials have gotten a lot of gold stars along the way. And yes, some may not have been warranted, but the vast majority of us worked our butts off for those gold stars. From being involved in every activity in high school to taking double-degree programs at university to differentiate ourselves, we know what it takes to achieve success and we want it… badly.

Millennial CoachingSports provide athletes with an incredible opportunity to achieve success as a result of their effort. Hard work almost always pays off on the pitch. Every day you have to go out there and earn your spot; and when you do, you are rewarded by a win, being on the starting lineup, or a cheering crowd. Why shouldn’t it be that way at work? So many organizations have gotten caught up in thinking that engagement includes rewarding no one (or everyone equally) to somehow please the masses. That is the opposite of what makes millennials tick. We want to work hard and we want it to be recognized. Because, in sport, if we step on the field and work harder than the other team, 9 times out of 10 we’re leaving with a win and a roar from the crowd.

In contrast, one of the things that millennials do struggle with is when they work hard but the result doesn’t go their way. This is where the most important part (that I couldn’t bring myself to leave out) comes in: coaching. Much like when we play sports, at work we need help building the resilience to get back on our feet when we’re knocked down, to shake it off when a call doesn’t go our way, and to come back ready to win after a devastating loss. The more that our organizational leaders provide us with that, the better we will be at picking ourselves up on our own.

Millennials aren’t perfect, that’s for sure. But they certainly aren’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to organizations. With the right team in our corner, I truly believe that we will bring home many more wins than losses.


SMG has over 35 years of data and research on the characteristics of top performers, particularly in sales roles. Contact us today to find out how we can help your company hire and retain top performing employees – including millennials!

Download our FREE eBook: An Introduction to Selecting Sales Professionals.

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Kathryn Christie, MSc

About Kathryn Christie, MSc

Kathryn is an organizational behaviour expert who specializes in talent analytics and talent management. She has 5 years of HR experience ranging from leadership development at higher education institutions to talent acquisition and talent management at large, matrixed organizations. As an Analytics and Talent Management Consultant at SMG, she focuses on conducting research studies and building strategic solutions for clients from various industries.

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