by: Issues: May / June 2009. Tags: Strategy. Categories: Strategy.

Attracting the best workers in the Millennial Generation is a goal for any organization, large or small. The best young leaders will migrate to the companies that make them feel at home—in a large, networked and global megacommunity. Which is why, as this author describes, the companies that recognize and understand the nature of megacommunities will win the war for talent.

The world is on the brink of a profound labour shortage, according to a recent study conducted by Booz Allen Hamilton. In less than a decade, there will not be enough skilled labour to maintain the global economy at full production. As a result, the war for talent—which is already fierce—will become even more ferocious and unpredictable as each year passes. As Ken Chenault, American Express Chairman and CEO, warns, “If you’re not focused…on getting some of the best people around the world, and in fact creating an environment where they feel they can really prosper, where they’re going to be respected, you will clearly lose out in a major way in the marketplace.”

New job entrants spring from a much more diverse pool. (According to Time Magazine, by 2020 only 30 percent of new job applicants will be males of European descent). And they want different things from their jobs than their parents wanted. Traditional methods for attracting, retaining, and motivating a workforce will not succeed as well with this group. It is imperative that organizations move toward figuring out what attracts potential new talent. And the first ones to break this code will be in the best position to succeed.

We believe that organizations that embrace megacommunity thinking will be the first to break this code. In our recent book Megacommunities: How Leaders of Government, Business and Non-Profits Can Tackle Today’s Global Challenges Together, co-authors Mark Gerencser, Reginald Van Lee, Fernando Napolitano and I call for a new tri-sector approach to problem solving. Pointing to monumental global problems such as climate change and more specific failures such as those that became manifest after Hurricane Katrina, we show that challenges on this scale require the combined ideas and energy of government, business and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), chartered to solve societal problems that fall beyond the capability or interest of the public and private sectors. In our book, we developed an outline of this emerging tri-sector organizational system. Supporting our assertion that megacommunities act as talent magnets, we also explored how megacommunities necessitate new ways of thinking, along with the deployment of new tools. In this article, we describe the elements of the megacommunity mindset that we feel could be most useful in attracting–and keeping–the right kind of talent.

“Optimizing” over “Maximizing”

Clearly, a value-based leadership approach helps in the war for talent. Consider this statement from Ian Buchanan, Senior Executive Advisor to Booz Allen Hamilton: “When I left Wharton in ‘72, the first questions I asked {potential employers} were: ‘When will I be a partner? And how much will I then make?’ We don’t get asked that anymore. It’s: ‘What are you doing to impact the community around you? What can I do to help achieve the bigger impact on society that’s important to me within the institutional structure?’ ”

Managers are only beginning to learn how to lead the 76 million children of baby boomers born between 1978 and 2000 that are now entering the workforce. A 2007 study published by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that younger workers—collectively known as the Millenial Generation—rated the contribution of their work to society as more important than their older co-workers. Recently, the Aspen Institute Center for Business Education surveyed MBA students from 15 business schools and found that the percentage of students who desired work with a potential for making a contribution to society jumped from 15 percent in 2002 to 26 percent in 2007.

Megacommunities are driven by a number of values-based tenets, foremost of which is the call to “optimize” over the more traditional notion of “maximizing.” (By way of defining these terms, think of a crowded highway. If you tailgate or dodge between lanes, you may maximize your position for a short period. But your behavior has made the entire system suboptimal, costing everybody on the road—including yourself— much more time in the long run).

In order to get a true tri-sector coalition off the ground, leaders working in a megacommunity must learn to adjust their own position to reach the optimal result for the entire group as a whole. In that way, the entire pie gets larger and each member of the megacommunity succeeds where they had not while pursuing a lone path to maximization. We’ve seen this approach work on problems stretching from Biloxi, Mississippi (where, after Hurricane Katrina, an organization called the Hope Community Center has drawn together volunteers, city council representatives and local businesses to successfully restore and rebuild housing) to the Amazon River Valley of Brazil (where a multi-sector effort resulted in the disbursement of much-needed antiretroviral medicines).

This type of fluidity—and deep collaboration—are crucial when tackling complex or seemingly insurmountable problems. Take, for example, the issue of the Great Barrier Reef, which faces many serious threats (from overfishing to runoff to global climate change). Some scientists contend the Reef could cease to exist by 2050.

In response, an independent group of businessmen formed The Great Barrier Reef Foundation to bring research organizations together to send out a unified message. Along the way, the group engaged with government and other businesses in a successful fundraising drive. Eventually, this megacommunity that formed around protecting the Reef went beyond fundraising and served to educate the chief executives and chairmen of Australia’s top companies about the dangers to the Reef. At the same time, scientists learned to work better with businesses and thereby gained powerful new allies and access to resources.

A bias to action

The success of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation also reflects the way megacommunities are oriented to taking action. Whether they form as a result of an immediate crisis (such as a typhoon or tsunami) or a slow, simmering problem (such as global warming), all megacommunities have a bias to action. Megacommunities come together to solve, not admire, a common problem (or what we refer to in our book as an “overlap of vital interests”). Participants and sponsors will only have the patience to continue if you can consistently demonstrate progress. And this is particularly true of the Millennial Generation.

As we’ve seen in Biloxi, an ever-changing enthusiastic group of young volunteers, managers and designers remain committed to the Hope Center not only because of their mission, but because—through tri-sector interaction—they have been very successful in bring their mission to fruition. At any one time, the Center is working on 30 or so new constructions, and repairing nearly 60 more. This bias to action is at the very heart of the megacommunity’s appeal to new talent, and to anyone anxious to have a real effect.

This bias to action also spotlights another appealing aspect of megacommunities: To develop a megacommunity solution that is a win across all sectors, leaders must often challenge and change internal institutions and established practices. Incentives may need to be restructured to value collective work above individual achievements. These kinds of new opportunities for re-invention and innovation have great appeal for new applicants. As the Aspen survey shows, the majority of MBA students expect to deal with values conflicts on the job by “advocating for alternative actions or approaches.”

Global scale

The geopolitical reality for young people today is shaped by deep and intractable tensions. The September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States were followed by a long and troubling war in Iraq. HIV/AIDs, while increasingly manageable, remains incurable. Global climate change seems inevitable. These are complicated and uncertain times that require a dramatic re-focusing on the planet as a whole.

We were reacting to many of the same events and feelings as we developed the concept of megacommunities. In a response to the uncertainties creating by accelerating globalization, we started to question and challenge ourselves in terms of our view on globalization, what its practical implications were and, most importantly, what we would advise our clients to do differently: in terms of solutions for tomorrow. We had swept the entire literature on globalization. While it was interesting and instructive, we were surprised that it very seldom addressed what’s next, or provided an action plan.

Over the next two years, Booz Allen conducted several strategic simulations (in which stakeholders played out fabricated crises of global concern). Although they addressed different issues – HIV/AIDS in India, port security and bioterrorism – we found we could draw a similar lesson from each.

In the bioterrorism simulation, we saw the real need for industry and government to collaborate on the knowledge and distribution of key medicines where decision velocity was the key dimension to reduce mortality. In the port security simulation, we discovered the importance of public and private sector collaboration to ensure integrity of our ports without disrupting our economic trade. In the HIV/AIDS simulation, we saw powerful evidence of the need for a coordinated public-private approach to this health crisis, spurring new partnerships and initiatives to fight the epidemic. In other words, all these simulations indicated the need for a new type of tri-sector mechanism and mindset—one that could work on a global scale. Hence, megacommunities.

Networked behavior

From a leadership standpoint, megacommunities shift the management of member organizations from a command-and-control to a network-based model. Booz Allen’s annual CEO surveys indicate that top leaders need to move away from an imperial style of leadership and adopt a mentality marked by negotiation and facilitation. That shift echoes the attitudes of twentysomethings who are already favouring and adopting collaborative, networked decision-marking rather than standard hierarchies.

This networking aspect of a megacommunity is well-aligned with the manner in which today’s young people have been socialized, through MySpace, Facebook and the internet in general. In many ways, today’s plugged-in, multi-tasking young leaders are already accustomed to existing in what we would call a megacommunity.

The networking challenge and scope of megacommunities also appeal to the younger workers’ taste for constant engagement. Through engagement, more finely-tuned cultural sensitivities may arise (which are imperative in a global megacommunity). “Technology is a tool and that tool allows us to communicate through the megacommunity and share information, but ultimately we have to be in a place where we can appreciate the huge diversity of gender, race, culture and creed and the rich input that makes ideas go further,” says Claudia Morrell, executive director of the Center for Women and IT at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who heads up a global megacommunity focused on women’s issues. Via technology, megacommunity participants are in a great position to recognize the material, as well as the psychological, benefits from developing true empathy for their partners and the problems they face in a rapidly globalizing world. Perhaps the ultimate in inclusive leadership is the ability to identify new partners, or new combinations of partners, and bring them into the megacommunity fold.

In time, megacommunities could become the most important breeding ground for training leaders with an ability to drive integration and experience across sectors. Barbara Waugh heads Hewlett Packard’s University Relations office, which has expanded its efforts into megacommunities designed to enhance engineering education and regional economic development in Latin America and Africa. Waugh said she is already beginning to see people move between jobs as a result of contacts made through megacommunities. Megacommunities give organizations a chance to watch a potential recruit in action before making the commitment to hire. “There is actually a lot of cross-sector recruiting that goes on across a megacommunity,” said Waugh. “It’s kind of below the radar screen, but it is happening.”

This tendency to move across boundaries also reflects the death of the job-for-life era. Today’s young people expect to change jobs, or careers, many times over.

A corporation may in fact benefit repeatedly from talented individuals who are not even on its payroll, as they move among organizations devoted to a cause that crosses into the corporate sphere.

According to Claire Superfine, a former Booz Allen associate who worked for a non-profit in Cambodia and is now in law school, her generation expects to remain highly mobile during its working years, moving between companies and sectors to meet new challenges and continue personal and professional growth. “We all recognize our jobs are different than our parents’,” she said. “We realize that there is a lot of change going on and think of ourselves as more independent than our parents, who were dependent on the big firms. We’re more flexible and adaptable. We want to jump between jobs and we know we’re going to have to.”

We’re concerned about having jobs in which we are challenged and allowed to think creatively and are moving to a greater public good. We’re not just being do-gooders. I think our generation is concerned about the problems that are looming and the drive is coming from the fact that it’s more of a necessity than just wanting to do good.”

With the confidence of youth and a history of high-achievement and social awareness, the Millennial Generation comes to the workforce with the belief that collaborative networks must pull together for individuals and society to prosper.

Companies that recognize and understand the nature of megacommunities and initiate them in concert with other organizations will win the war for talent. The best young leaders will migrate to these companies that make them feel at home—in a large, networked and global megacommunity.