If You Like Innovation and Care about Making a Difference, You’re Going to Love Your Millennials

Sara Roberts and Simeon Sessley

Millennials get a lot of bad press as demanding, difficult, different. For employers and managers, they’re often viewed as a demographic to be handled rather than welcomed, a necessary evil with better social-media skills.

In health care, where clinician shortages abound and employee retention and engagement is a serious challenge, many are worried about the influx of Millennials and the effect on culture and performance. After all, as a generation larger than the Baby Boomers, Millennials will make up half the workforce in the next five years and 75 percent by 2025.1 Our work and research on Millennials and the role they can play in helping create dynamic, innovative new-era cultures tells a different story, one that is particularly relevant for health care today. Many of the insights we’ve gained through our work have shaped our belief that Millennials have attributes, perspectives, and inclinations critical for organizations that are striving to become more nimble, innovative, and purpose-led. At a time when disruptive change, consumerism, and the shift to value are shaking health-care organizations up, Millennials—both as employees and as customers—are exactly what the doctor ordered.


First of all, the term “Millennials” is loaded with unflattering connotations. They’re flighty, impractical, and uncommitted. They’re difficult to understand and quick to change their minds. They’re unreliable and overly idealistic. None of this is true, of course, and every new generation is painted that way. In fact, Millennials share the same career goals and professional aspirations as the generations before them—Gen X and the Boomers.2 Millennials are unusual in some respects, however. In her forthcoming book, Nimble, Focused and Feisty, Sara coined the term “Difference Makers” to describe those people in an organization who are the dynamos of the culture and drive change and innovation that push new ways of thinking and innovation—not to mention more responsiveness to markets and customers in line with their overall purpose and vision. Millennials embody many of those traits.

First, they are more closely aligned to an internal sense of purpose and meaning than many other generations, and inherently motivated to make a difference through their work. As a result, they tend to be drawn to organizations—both as employers and as customers—that are ethical, valuebased, often altruistic, and focused on creating meaningful ideas and solutions that make for a better world. That’s the “Difference” part of Difference Makers. Second, they are also doers who get things accomplished. They’re biased toward action, motivated by results, and fast. They practically embody the “maker movement”—that umbrella term for all the inventors, designers, and tinkerers who are great at hacking existing problems and improving what most of us are willing to settle for or take for granted. That’s the “Maker” part. According to the third annual Deloitte Millennial Survey, 78 percent are influenced by how innovative a company is when deciding if they want to work there.

Isn’t that an appealing demographic to bring on board?


Few industries have confronted the level of turmoil that health care is navigating today. Technological, regulatory, economic, talent, and organizational challenges are forcing intense reconfiguration and performance improvement on almost every front. In at least three significant areas, Millennials are in the right time and the right place to help health-care organizations manage this change and thrive. Adopting customer-focused business models With changes to reimbursement, the shift from centralized to decentralized delivery systems, and the rise of market consumerism, the health-care business model is transforming before our eyes.

Millennial consumers are demanding access, speed, convenience, quality, and cost-competitiveness. Millennial employees bring the kind of energy, creativity, speed, and willingness to upset the apple cart needed to disrupt incumbents and win market share.

Relying on technology to improve workflow and patient engagement From telemedicine to portals to mobile apps, health care is experiencing the kind of technology-interface upgrade that most other industries have already gone through. Millennials are particularly adroit with technology—they know how to design it and use it, and they understand that it’s there to serve people as a social and communication tool. As Kim Scurr of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), Benioff Children’s Hospital notes, while electronic health records, for example, have given many clinicians fits, “For the Millennials, this was a very natural transition.” 

Millennials expect and want to use technology in the workplace. They also expect and want their care providers to be connected and available 24/7 just like they are. “Millennials are demanding a life-centric approach from health-care providers,” says Ann Somers Hogg of Carolinas HealthCare System. They have no tolerance for driving to clinics, filling out forms, waiting for hours, and being treated like widgets.

Doing what’s right in new ways 
The shift from volume to value is freeing health care to pursue its traditional purpose more directly by giving patients the care quality they deserve. Millennials are especially drawn to working for organizations that are purpose-driven, caring, and out to make the world better. Dr. Jean Wright of Carolinas HealthCare System has used a purpose-centered recruiting effort to attract Millennial data analytics experts to join health care and succeeded over counter offers from banks and Internet service providers.



In addition, Millennials are drawn to innovation. With health care on the precipice of exciting entrepreneurial and technological change, health care seems like a good  opportunity to them. 


With all this energetic talent at your disposal, how do you leverage Millennials to become a more integrated and valuable part of your workforce? We have a few suggestions: 

1. Stop “Boomer-splaining” 
Nothing turns a Millennial off faster than when you are condescending and talk down to them. Given what Millennials bring to the table as employees and consumers, it’s time to listen as much as talk. “Reverse mentoring” is a great way to get executives and Millennials together to figure out what’s what. Combine Millennial perspective and know-how with Boomer and Gen X experience and knowhow to see what new stuff will emerge. At OhioHealth, according to Garrick Ducat, “Millennials are helping shape their digital strategy.”

2. Forget status-quo; think no-quo 

How does an organization figure out new and better ways to do things? It often starts with strategic planning sessions, but if that meeting is filled with the same old faces, you’re likely to get the same old answers. Strategy expert Vijay Govindarajan says, “You need voices in the room that aren’t vested in the past.”Govindarajan recommends following the 30/30 rule. Make sure that at least 30 percent of the people who make strategic decisions in your organization are 30 years old or younger. Navicent Health is doing just that by creating a “Next Gen” advisory group of 12 to 15 individuals from Millennial and Gen X groups to inform, engage, and guide the organization in developing its workforce and patient-focused strategies. As Navicent’s CEO, Dr. Ninfa Saunders, puts it, “We look to the Baby Boomers for containment and stability and the Millennials for relevance.”

3. Let them hack

Millennials want to solve problems and make things better. One way to get them engaged and working on projects that make a difference is to set them up in teams that are focused on driving improvements in workflow or results using a Lean-type approach. You can also provide them with a dedicated space or time (a hack-a-thon) to problem-solve and execute various innovation ideas with peers and crossgenerational team members.

4. Turing-test your technology

The problem with health-care technology is that it too often serves its own needs, not the needs of actual human beings in the workforce and the market. Millennials will not shy away from telling you when technology misses the mark because it lacks the human dimension. With adoption rates for telemedicine and health portals at abysmal levels, healthcare organizations need people who can tell them why a technology solution won’t work, isn’t working, or what can be done to improve it. As one health care executive stated, “If technology doesn’t get you better connected to health care, then it’s missing the mark.”


Finally, one of the most telling things we’ve heard health-care executives say about Millennials is that they remind them why they got into health care in the first place. The sense of optimism, can-do spirit, urgency, caring, empathy, and purpose is embedded in just about everyone who enters the health-care profession. Yet too often, outmoded systems and approaches stifle those feelings over time and leave people jaded or worn down rather than innovative and focused on real needs. However, some, like Mike Fencel of Universal Health Services, have confirmed that “Both personally and as a company we have been focused on the type of future leaders we recruit and attempt to develop.” Organizations that are aligned with the right goals, incentives, and sense of purpose bring out the best in people. 

We’ve both seen how people react when cultures and leadership get renewed. Suddenly, the Difference Maker in all of us emerges. It doesn’t really depend on what generation you’re from. We’re all more alike than we are different. But sometimes it takes a fresh approach to put things in the right perspective. These days, organizations with nimble, innovative, and competitive cultures are winning because of their people. Millennials are an asset and an investment in that kind of culture. 


1 Sara Roberts, “Stop Treating Millennial Employees Like Enigmas,” Fast Company Magazine, March 11, 2015, accessed June 5, 2016, http://www.fastcompany. com/3043370/hit-the-ground-running/how-to-stoptreating-your-millennial-employees-like-enigmas. 

2 Bruce N. Pfau, “What Do Millennials Really Want at Work? The Same Things the Rest of Us Do,” Harvard Business Review, April 7, 2016, accessed June 5, 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/04/what-domillennials-really-want-at-work.

3 David Segal, “In Pursuit of the Perfect Brainstorm,” The New York Times Magazine, December 16, 2016, accessed June 5, 2016, http://www.nytimes. com/2010/12/19/magazine/19Industry-t.html?_r=0.

Sara Roberts is an authority on organizational transformation and building purpose-led companies. She’s an executive consultant, keynote speaker, and author whose latest book, Nimble, Focused, Feisty: Organizational Cultures That Win in the New Era and How to Create Them, will be published this August. 

Simeon Sessley is an executive coach, advisor, and community builder leading health-care systems to better customer outcomes.