Easing the Millennial Pain: Lessons from Downton Abbey

As we get ready for the final season of Downton Abbey – no spoilers here – I am struck by the parallel between the frustrations of 20th century Millennials like Tom, Daisy, Lady Mary and even a much older Mr. Molesley, to those of today’s 21st century workforce.

Let’s review. Entering last season we saw Lord Grantham struggle to maintain the business model of the estate despite the political and economic upheaval of the time. He is continually hounded by Mary and son-in-law Tom, who are ready to eschew the past and move quickly with reforms, including (gasp) the introduction of pigs and other alternative revenue streams into the Downton portfolio.

Meanwhile, downstairs in the kitchen there’s more trouble brewing. We have Daisy, the rebel cook who is pushing new technology (i.e., an electronic mixer) and Mr. Molesley, the overqualified footman who is beaten back by Mr. Carson, who considers Molesley’s valet ambitions as presumptuous and lacking in gratitude.

So, what’s the problem? Transparency for one. Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes have extended discussions about the career prospects of Mr. Molesley; however, the one person who does not enjoy the benefit of their perspective is, indeed, Mr. Molesley. Similarly, Lord Grantham recognizes value in the modernization plans and reluctantly accepts the fact that things can’t go on as before. What he finds difficult to do is talk to his daughter and son-in-law about his vision. Instead, he does a little delegating, a little investigating and a lot of brooding.

Every Millennial generation tells us that they want collaboration, opportunity, feedback and meaning in their work. On the other hand, what we typically deliver are top-down career transactions that rarely involve or are even influenced by the young people whose futures are affected by them. Career opportunity may be there but it is not generally discussed in sufficient detail to ward off their dissatisfaction.

Fast forward to this century, a time when strategic planners tell us that the true product of strategic planning is the process, not the plan. Yet, as Lord Grantham demonstrates, when the competitive and market environment gets more complex and difficult to predict, the planning process tends to become less inclusive and more dependent on a narrow group of outside experts – rarely “insiders” who are actually closest to the situation.

So what are the lessons to be learned from Downton? Could it be as simple as taking the information and intelligence that is already out there and ensuring that it gets used more widely and strategically? Imagine a recruiting, succession, or career planning process that does more than “trickle down.”

Here’s how. For recruiting, recreate the discussion around what the organization is looking for in the job and the successful candidate and share it with the person who actually gets the job to kick-start the onboarding process.

For succession, ask the associates in the succession pool where they see themselves on the 9 Box grid – high- professional vs. high-potential – rather than defer entirely to leaders who can only make educated guesses about the individual’s interests and career ambitions. And finally, ensure that managers are prepared to facilitate career discussions in a way that is exploratory and enriching.

Bottom line, we don’t need new technology or even over-engineered processes to create more engagement with each new generation of Millennials, just greater transparency and more two-way communication.

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