Home Thinking Aloud Millennial Retention Is all About Purpose; So What Is Purpose?

Millennial Retention Is all About Purpose; So What Is Purpose?


by Nick Craig, President of the Core Leadership Institute

As a young company, you might naturally gravitate toward seeking young talent. Yet even if you’re a millennial yourself, you may not have the answer to the unique challenges that come along with attracting and maintaining high-achieving millennials.

The problem, as explained by studies and articles, often boils down to the fact that millennials are “wired differently”, incentivized less by the standard carrot-and-stick materials. They’re complex, they’re always looking for something new, and they’re not beholden to any one company or brand.

People often wrap the millennial question up with a bow by saying that millennials are that millennials crave a work life enriched by purpose, and are driven to start and stay at jobs by purpose rather than paycheck or prestige. Millennials have effectively flipped the script on what’s important at work, and to keep them and develop their talent, we have to play the game.

While paycheck and prestige weren’t exactly simple to cultivate, purpose presents a new level of complication for those hoping to hold onto their bright young talent. Purpose is comparatively difficult to pinpoint and implement.  There are all sorts of mixed messages about what, exactly, it is. To some, purpose means contributing to and serving a cause greater than oneself, like saving the planet. To others, it might mean having an inspirational tagline to help rally teams and boost engagement and the bottom line.  So it can be tough to know how to use it to get and keep millennials on board.

So what is purpose?

Purpose – done right – is a foundational concept that’s a game-changer for all: it is the unique gift we bring to the world and always have. It is the essence of who we are as individuals and what we bring to a situation that nobody else can. It is present in every instant of our lives and evident in how we interact with the challenges of the moment.

It turns out to be the only thing that doesn’t change in a world spinning out of control. It gives leaders clarity of vision and the confidence to act when it is needed most.

It’s a Great Big Idea, and, like implementing all Great Big Ideas, even the most effective leaders run into roadblocks and detours. Below are the mistakes I see most often as companies try to cultivate purpose:

Confusing having a cause with having a purpose.

The prevailing conversation around purpose focuses on how to bring in noble or worthy causes to a business. The notion this supports, that “purpose equals cause”, has become so pervasive, in fact, that many of the leaders I encounter seem to believe that some version of “saving the world” is the only worthy purpose. It sounds admirable, but the notion is flawed.

The truth is, we all spend a good deal of our time doing things that aren’t directly involved in solving the world’s most challenging problems, especially those millennial employees who are greener, and learning the ropes on fundamentals of their field.

Moreover, throughout our lives most of us will pursue several causes that we are passionate about. Our causes may change as we evolve and engage more deeply with our environment. In contrast, our purpose remains constant and will be just as true when we are 102.  The causes we support are vehicles for expressing our unique purpose through actions, but none of them are purpose itself. This can be a powerful revelation for freshman talent.

So in addition to engaging millennials through causes, encourage them to think about the unique gift they bring to what they do and how they can show up with it each day.

A new title or paycheck really can’t confer purpose.

While most of us have experienced a surge of renewed dedication to our jobs after a big promotion or raise, these incentives can’t begin to touch the stickiness of purpose.

Purpose is the one identity that will always be there as all others defined by the world are swept away. You should be able to apply the same purpose to all areas of your life—work, family, hobbies and passions alike. If you lose a job or title, your purpose remains intact. It is available in every context. A comforting notion for someone at the start of their career, and a place to really build from.

Even as you hone job descriptions and print off business cards for the millennials on your team, invite them to talk about who they think they’ll be when they move on within your company or beyond it.

Challenge, for challenge’s sake, does not equal purpose.

Common wisdom around millennial retention almost always leans towards keeping them busy with direction. Busy learning, improving, moving vertically — not laterally.

While challenge is good food for smart, critical thinkers, challenge in a vacuum can begin to feel monotonous or pointless after time. For this reason, challenge itself cannot equal purpose. When your millennial employees discover their purpose, the challenges will build towards a greater sense of purpose that is undeniably attractive, and will keep them interested and growing for the long-haul.

For starters, challenge them to consider what would most be missed if they were replaced with someone of equal skills – and to bring that to their next meeting.

If your talent is as sharp and driven as you want them to be, they won’t be able to deny the allure of finding their unique value, and learning how to hone and wield it for big results both on and off the job.


Nick Craig is the President of the Core Leadership Institute, a leadership consulting firm committed to waking up those who will wake up the many by inspiring them to discover their purpose and equipping them to lead authentically. He has guided over 5,000 executives in the last ten years on the journey to discover and lead with purpose, and has worked with organizations including GE, Unilever, Goldman Sachs and West Point Military Academy.