The Millennials: Shaping tomorrow’s leaders in an age of anxiety
Faced with the growing spectres of so-called asymmetric threats, globalization and technological advancement, significant new challenges confront Western-based intelligence agencies. The future of any successful intelligence enterprise will entail increased cross-agency collaboration on a domestic and international scale, integration of all highly technical collection systems, and closer relationships between core collectors and analysts.
Another element, which is slowly being recognized, will be the successful integration of the millennium generation’s emergence as a critical component of today’s intelligence workforce.
Increasing attention is being given to the characteristics that distinguish Generation Y from previous generations. Often defined as those born between 1980 and 2000, the Millennials, also known as the Trophy Kids, present an entirely new breed of dedicated public servants. (The Trophy Kids terminology refers to today’s scholastic athletic activities where all are recognized for their participation versus overall achievements. First or last, everyone goes home with a medal and as a winner.)
From a management perspective, one may ask, is this really a challenge? Isn’t every generation different? The simple answer is yes.
Still, pause for a moment, and think of those intelligence officers who grew up under the mentorship of the old guard, the OSS boys, and founders of the CIA who fought in the Second World War. They spent their entire careers battling the spectre of the Soviet Union. They dressed the part, worked hard, and too often at the cost of their personal lives eventually earned their senior ranks. After multiple tours overseas, they return to headquarters to find a new generation of officers in flip-flops, playing games of Frisbee on the outside lawn, and Starbucks lingo. The end result is a quiet but persistent struggle to work, manage, and communicate with Millennials. Top management is quick to point out back in their day, motivation consisted of a good kick in the “you know what.” But today, sensitivity training is de rigueur and many within the leadership ranks are left to wonder what is happening to their institution.
The short answer is tomorrow’s James Bond prefers a healthy smoothie to a “shaken but not stirred” Martini. He also wants to be home early to play with his kids before going out again into the night in search of his next mission.
Like it or not, Millennials are redefining the work environment and their characteristics are re-writing typical business rules. For this generation, information has consistently been at the touch of a keystroke. Millennials have developed a capacity to ingest and process unprecedented amounts of data. A YouTube video posted this year entitled “Did You Know” reports on globalization findings discussed at the 2009 Devos Conference. It claims a week’s worth of The New York Times is more information than what an average person would be exposed to during the 18th century.
One welcome benefit of this phenomenon is the expected increased level of openness and information sharing between agencies. Top down and one-way communication will become a concept of the past. As this generation grows into leadership positions, they will not hesitate to reach across multiple agency ranks to seek or provide advice.
For better or worse, their socialization quickly progressed from the school playgrounds to the unlimited realm of the internet and associate technologies. Friendships are no longer primarily forged in the classroom or in the professional workplace, but can be found and cemented via an array of online social networking groups.
Conversely, the digital ease of texting has led to increased difficulty in effective written communications regardless of university background. Multiple agencies report on their young officers’ difficulty with the use of the English language and ability to produce meaningful and concise intelligence reporting.
By the same token this constant texting has led to some level of social regression and aversion to face-to-face communication with people outside of their peer groups. This is a growing challenge for human intelligence (HUMINT) collection institutions whose officers must successfully develop and exploit rapport with clandestine sources – sources who most often are their seniors.
Still, as they enter the workforce, it is very apparent that as a whole this generation is driven by a different set of principles, values, and expectations. They celebrate their individuality, welcome diversity and at the same time actively seek a collaborative response to a given problem set. They are able to rapidly organize across communities to join forces on common goals and interests. One recent example is the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, which is dedicated to fostering future policy leaders. In several short years, its membership grew to several thousand with international chapters in London and Brussels.
Private corporations have quickly recognized that a “work-life balance” is not just a human capital management gimmick, but for them an actual aim. It reflects their genuine commitment to family, community, and the ability to seek and enjoy new experiences. They feel entitled but have established an unprecedented pattern of community service and volunteering. They collectively believe in their ability to positively impact their environment and change the world. They are more tolerant of others and yet less trusting of big government and large corporations. They like to multi-task but have demonstrated short attention spans.
This perceived inversion of values from current management practices has been a source of consternation and often outright frustration for the current leadership. Baby boomers grew up with a stronger sense of “company loyalty,” especially when IC agencies traditionally worked independently of one another.
There is also a shared belief that specialization has its merit. Yet Millennials are expected to have as many as 14 different jobs before they reach 40. Thus, a consistent effort must be made to develop, mentor and retain the institutional knowledge of specialized intelligence officers. If still unable to keep top talent, institutions should offer the opportunity to come back without career or compensation penalties.
Traditionally, promotion to senior ranks was achieved after twenty years of dedicated service. By contrast, many of today’s Millennials are already on track to realize these same aims in half the time. The latter actively seeks constant feedback and recognition for their performance. Still, having grown up under the permanent watch of “great job” parental fan clubs, they appear acutely more sensitive to negative criticism. The result further strains the successful integration of this bright and able group into the current workforce.
Consequently, they have set expectations and are often criticized for having a strong sense of entitlement as well as unrealistic expectations about promotions and professional advancement. In an October 21, 2008 Wall Street Journal article, Ron Alsop, author of The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace, quotes the common complaint of many recruiters about Generation Y: “They want to be CEO tomorrow.”
It is important we recognize these tendencies and find the best means to not only engage Millennials but fully maximize the qualities they possess to successfully transform the intelligence community for the 21st century.
To facilitate this generational transition, institutions should develop genuine mentorship programs, forge collaborative processes, allow frank dialogue across the entire leadership structure, as well as offer classified social outreach programs and institutional social media outlets.
The Millennials have already demonstrated themselves as resourceful innovators. Despite some obvious challenges, they are well motivated to achieve their aims and ensure the safeguarding of our nations’ shared values.
Alex Anyse is a former intelligence officer and the co-founder of The MASY Group, a global intelligence and risk management consulting firm. This article is adapted from a presentation to the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies last fall