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  • Ann Werner

Millennials and Unicorns

A few months ago, I was asked to contribute to an article about over-achieving millennials, or as some would call them, unicorns. It was an interesting topic and I felt it was worth exploring a little deeper:

The name ‘unicorn’ employer is given to members of staff who outshine the rest of their team to such a degree that, like their mythical name suggests they are most difficult to find, if at all!

Researchers of this new phenomenon ascribe the following characteristics to these types of workers: They go the extra mile in terms of not only being strategic about their role, seeing the big picture and how it relates to the whole, but they are also able to focus on the detail and accurate implementation. Furthermore, when the going gets tough, they stick it out and are known to have true ‘grit’ – a word that is bandied about much in current millennial work scenarios. Unicorn employees are kind, considerate, passionate about their work, loyal to their teams and management, respectful of all levels of the hierarchy (above and below their station), and achieve their goals.

There are certainly some employees who are hooked into this type presentation at work and thrive on being singled out as excellent performers. Certainly, there will always be those who strive for this sort of excellence / over achievement.

However, from my perspective and practice, and when looking at the millennials as a whole, there is a sense that they have more of an idea of what it is that they want, than the generations before them. They know about grandparents who earned their golden handshake through years of service, sticking in the same positions year after year in an environment with a far slower rate of change; and on the other hand, they are also most familiar with entrepreneurs who have started their own businesses, burning the midnight oil, sacrificing family time and relationships all for the sake of a successful business.

Access to abundant information currently, through data, social media, internet, has provided a widened appreciation of lives lived globally, beyond the reaches of known communities and this, I am sure has profoundly affected aspirations. The millennials, learning from these work modes, often find that they wish for more balance in their work and personal life.

Hence, I sense that many millennials would go so far as to say, that while there are those few born with the shine of a unicorn, there is a strong sense that a great manager could develop a top performer if they took the time to recognise what makes that individual thrive, their particular abilities, latent abilities, approach to work etc. In other words, developing confident millennials through finely tuned and engaged management can go a long way to building a whole team of dedicated, diligent and realistic millennials, rather than hoping for a few self-motivated, exceptional, (and often short-lived) unicorns.

Career guru, Richard Bolles, (author of ‘What Colour is your Parachute’) describes the traditional versus the creative approach in the career search and it would seem that millennials are adopting this in not seeing themselves as only “job beggars” (traditional) but as individuals who are a real resource to that organisation (creative). They are equally interested in knowing how they can serve the company with their skill sets as well as how the organisation can help them achieve their career goals, intellectual stimulation, skill development etc.

As such they do not see themselves as powerless automatons, the pawns or cogs in all consuming machinery, but they are rather able to acknowledge their worth; they are seeking an entry-level autonomy, with the diligence and enthusiasm to work towards furthering their career goals, which are fully aligned with the bottom-line needs of the organisation.

This, particularly so, as our economy moves further into the digital age, the progressive philosophies of servant leadership and the value of all individuals playing an equal (and visible, thanks to Agile) part in the construct of work solutions.

Such employees themselves are worth their weight in salt and thrive when they are given the nurturing, support, mentoring, supervision and strong leadership which they require.

However, many prospective employees still hanker for additional skills and qualifications, believing that if they can do it all, at least they will be able to secure an interview. And then once employed, they will bank their position by their willingness to take on more and more extra work.

But, why is it that there is the need to stretch oneself, beyond long term and sustainable capacity – and far beyond the parameters of a reasonable job description? Is there a need to prove, or please or perfect? And if so, what are the drivers for this? Is there is a sense of not being good enough and finding some sense of self only through the work environment so that the more one achieves, the better one feels – but only within the confines of the job environment?

Are employees drawing their satisfactory sense of self from their work and thus without it, find that they feel empty and worthless?

And if so – take care! While many believe that perfectionism is the only way to work, in health and wellness circles, perfectionism is known as a form of self-abuse! The more one reaches beyond one’s capacity towards unattainable goals, the more one has the possibility of failing or feeling a sense of failure. In this case a vicious cycle may develop where overly high expectations with unmet goals result in an increased disenchantment with the work, frustration, and worse, developing a form of self-hate, for failing or rarely ever reaching the mark; of never feeling good enough.

Job descriptions are put in place for a reason and while this does not mean that one necessarily works these guidelines to the T, they do provide a rough idea of the expected role. The real key is to fulfil that role and add value with any spare capacity that one has, but ensuring that this is also sustainable. This means having a respectful sense of boundaries and being prepared to go beyond the job description, while taking care to ensure that any substantial additional responsibilities given are negotiated alongside increased career advancement and or remuneration – or at least potential for this.

Of course, attitude plays an enormous role in one’s approach to work. Doing your very best, looking out for areas where you can use your initiative to advance the organisation (and indirectly yourself), being willing to put in the hard yard when required, learning more about the product/ service etc will go a long way in making you a popular team member and of great benefit to your organisation – and often furthering your career!

Perhaps the topic piqued my interest especially as my approach to assisting clients in finding their niche in the market place, takes the unicorn methodology and turns it on its head!

In fact, rather than scurrying around seeking ways to fit the organisation, my belief is that in the long term, stepping back and developing a sure idea of self and what it is that one can do and really wants to do, is far closer to the mark as a manner of procuring employment.

Thus, it is vital that potential employees should spend time outlining their favourite skills, abilities, interests, their appropriate and market related remuneration package, their favourite people environment, their values, career goals; their level of responsibility in the organisation and the type of management for whom they would like to work; and they would need to ascertain whether they would be flexible in moving elsewhere in the country or abroad. Many find that investigating these areas alongside the empirical evidence of psychometric (vocational, interest, personality interests) inventories may be even more useful.

Surely, there is no point going out hunting for something, without a clear idea of what it is that you are seeking!

Research reveals that between the ages of 21 and 65, approximately 11 000 days are spent working and that’s a very long time, not being happy doing what you are doing!

Thus, to my thinking, it is vital that a holistic self-and type-of-work appraisal is conducted at the start of this career search process. This will provide the necessary broad range perspective for comprehensive decision making. i.e. this is the full and sound foundation which aids and directs final career determination.

And in turn, this approach allows for sustainability, the hope of long-term job satisfaction and most importantly, underwrites the quintessential desire of any diligent worker - finding one's identity in the work that we were born to do and thereby our meaning and purpose.

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