Millennials are now the largest demographic in the workplace. How does leadership need to respond? Ron Carlucci, Managing Partner at Navalent gives us some isight. @RonCarucci
Academics, entrepreneurs, and management thought leaders have been trying to decode what it takes to effectively lead Millennials since they arrived into the workplace a decade ago. Carey Smith, CEO of Big Ass Solutions (formerly Big Ass Fans, and named so because customers would see their immensity and say, “Woah, those are some big ass fans”) clearly has a beat on leading this generation. The company’s name is emblematic of both Carey’s sense of humor and what he does, and doesn’t, take seriously. Without investors, the organization remains obsessed with delighting customers and growing employees. Customers come first—no matter the cost. When an employee sold a church an industrial fan that was inappropriate for the space, Big Ass Solutions paid tens of thousands of dollars erecting expensive scaffolding to uninstall the product from the historic site. The church paid nothing, and Smith felt so bad about the ordeal that he donated $10,000 for the congregation to purchase new windows.
I sat with him and a few of his key employees (whose average age is 32) to discuss how they’ve achieved such remarkable results in so short a period of time. He provided the quintessential short-course in what it means to effectively lead tomorrow’s leaders. The results speak for themselves. Big Ass Solutions celebrates an employee retention rate of 85% and has ranked high on their state’s coveted Best Places to Work list for eight straight years, landing as high as number 3. With customers in more than 125 countries, they grew from $34 million in 2009 to more than $200 million in 2015.
Here are four powerful lessons from Carey that every leader should apply to invite great performance from emerging leaders.
1. Be disarmingly genuine and generous. Carey is the proverbial “what you see is what you get” leader. Humorous and self-effacing, he pokes fun at himself, and others are glad to join in. “When I want a donut in the morning, it costs me about $100 because I can’t just eat a donut myself, I have to get them for everyone.” That’s not out of guilt. It’s a principle he’s driven deep into the organization. “ When you lack care and empathy for those you work with, you forfeit performance . I can’t hold myself out as special or different. We all play different roles. You can’t treat people differently if you want them to work with you. We are a tribe. You build camaraderie by leveling the playing field.” Lauren, who reports to Carey, says, “Carey has built a place people want to work. We enjoy ourselves and each other.”
2. Stay inventive and future-focused. With more than 134 patents, and another 145 patents-pending, Carey places competitive emphasis on pushing technological and design boundaries in all their categories. Scott, a young leader, says, “What convinced me to come work here is the longer term focus of the organization. I didn’t want to work for a one-trick pony company. We invest more than two times the industry average in R&D. It’s an exciting place to work – you are never doing the same thing every day.” Carey is adamant about how to grow his company. They are working on building a 200 year old company. “You can’t do that by focusing exclusively on the bottom line. In a lot of companies, people are so concerned about growing revenues, they forget they are growing organizations . Management has a tendency to focus on themselves, short term goals, and financial results, mostly for themselves.”
3. Create opportunities to stretch. Everyone says Millennials are obsessed with growth and learning. But Carey makes it a way of life to create that environment. “Our job rotation ability is amazing. You won’t be in the same position after a couple of years,” says Scott, a young leader at Big Ass. “We move people around to match their strengths and passions and we tell them if they are in the same job after two years, either they failed us or we failed them.” Another young leader running a $70 million business has been there for about 8 years. Says Carey, “He recognizes that he is ahead of himself in his career, but that’s how you learn. When you put people into assignments that force them to stretch, they figure it out, they make mistakes, and they learn a ton . That’s how they get great. Nine times out of ten it works.” Carey fully recognizes the risk of putting younger leaders into assignments before being fully ready, but insists it’s the only practical way to grow the entire company’s capability. “They’re going to have to drive eventually, and only practice will make them better. It’s a scary thought, but the scarier thought is a group of untrained and untried employees taking over the reins.”
4. Show them genuine regard. Carey is smitten with this generation. He pays them 20% more than national averages and 40% more than local averages. He says he does so because he knows his employees are deeply community minded and wants them out spending that money in their city. He sees this as their responsibility to local community. Of his Millennial workforce, Carey says, “It’s just nonsense that they get a bad rap. I couldn’t be happier to have them.” He believes Millennials are an exceptional workforce and a great foundation on which to build a company. “They have absolutely no fear. They’re adept at discovery and learn from their predecessors. And they fit great with entrepreneurs because they can take ideas and run with them.” Carey also points out that their educational years working and playing in groups prepared them to be great collaborators, teaching them to understand a group’s dynamics. He funds gym memberships, volleyball leagues, and weekly “Fine Dining” dinners sponsored by leaders on his team to take mixed groups of employees out to dinner. It’s a genuine investment in them. And it’s smart business. “My millennial employees are my greatest recruitment and retention tool. Instead of working to keep them in my building after hours, ensuring that they have fun outside of work improves morale, enhances collaboration and spreads our brand organically.” His unfettered delight in, and willingness to learn from them is reciprocated in their loyalty to the organization and commitment to outstanding performance.
How to lead this amazing generation of future leaders isn’t a mystery. My years of cross-generational research squarely confirm Carey’s choices. If Carey has his way, Big Ass Solutions will be here 200 years from now. It will likely be run by one of the great, great grandchildren of a graduate student just beginning their journey at the company. And that’s probably what Carey is building into his 200-year succession plan.