How to Manage Millennials: Tips From the CEOs of Adidas, Journeys & Other Footwear Firms

Millennial workplace
Janne Ivonen

Every day Jim Estepa receives personal telephone calls from the Journeys store and district managers who want to talk about their days at one of the retailer’s roughly 1,200 locations across the country.

Thanks to Journeys’ corporate emphasis on communication with all workers, its store and district managers (90 percent of whom are in the millennial generation), feel empowered to openly discuss their personal career growth or their store’s specific product needs.

“Sometimes they just want to make sure I see how well they’re doing,” said Estepa, president and CEO of the Journeys Group, a division of Nashville, Tenn.-based Genesco Inc.

It might seem like a simple strategy, but this type of feedback is a must-have for millennial workers — people between 17 and 37 who, according to a 2011 PwC survey, in just three years will make up roughly half of the workforce across the globe.

For companies, the stakes have never been higher to accommodate — and grow with — this generation of workers. That is particularly true for brands and retailers, which rely on millennial sales associates to serve as the faces of their retail businesses as they interact with shoppers.

According to Gallup Inc., 73 million millennials were born between 1980 and 1996 in the United States. And among the many statistics generated about this much-discussed generation, the polling firm found that they have the highest rates of unemployment and underemployment, and low rates of engagement.

Another characteristic that defines this group: Most millennials feel such a strong conviction to make what they see as an impact where they work, that they are known for swiftly changing jobs. Consequently, the generation has an interesting, inspiring — and, some may say, complicated — relationship with the companies for which they work.

Millennials, who are also characterized by their creativity, innovativeness and desire to improve society, are now driving how footwear firms shape their corporate culture.

“People who are new to the workforce have a strong comfort level to share ideas they have and are fearless with their ideas. They are revolutionizing the ways businesses behave,” said Elizabeth Romanoff, VP of talent and culture at San Rafael, Calif.-based footwear firm Vionic Group.

Retailers and brands told  that working with this age group has fostered better communication around worker feedback, created clearer career growth prospects and made these companies more desirable places to work — not just for millennials but for people of all ages.

And workplaces, both at the corporate and store levels, have become better environments for collaboration and creativity — two essential elements for generating fresh moneymaking ideas.

That also improves retailers’ ability to connect with the people they seek the most: their core consumers.

What a millennial’s ideal workplace might look like. Janne Ivonen

Talk to Me
Feedback is one of the top priorities for younger workers, who typically want to be kept apprised of their impact on the workplace.

How management teams approach this new necessity is evolving, however, and now goes beyond the corporate intranet link. For many, feedback is now provided daily, via avenues such as Journeys’ direct phone calls or also immediately in person after meetings, through something called “interactive coaching.”

Stacey Hanke, executive coach and author of the book “Influence Redefined,” advised that management should make accommodations to how workers prefer to receive feedback. Some may like public praise, while others want private meetings to discuss milestones. Importantly, catered feedback conversations open communication lines early on.

“One of the things I tell leaders is to sit down, have the conversation and find out: How often do you want feedback? What are you looking for it to be about? And where do you want to grow in this company?” said Hanke.

At Vans, just under half of the 572 employees at the brand’s Costa Mesa, Calif., headquarters are millennials. Having a discussion about future work prospects is a priority from the get-go. “To have a healthy work environment, it’s our job to help employees lay out what their future opportunities may be,” said Cheryl Van Doren, VP of human resources.

Hanke explained that some workers may be laser-focused on upward career growth, while others simply want to check in on project goals. “You have to be specific with what works based on what they want to develop,” she said. “What works for them and enhances their communication? What’s getting in the way?”

At Vionic Group, employees meet with managers at least once a month, sometimes weekly or biweekly, said Romanoff. Feedback at the company consists of instant individual conversations, private coaching and public celebrations. For many, in-person interaction is a must.

Rebecca Bowman, SVP of training and development at Genesco, recalled how a Journeys store manager, six months into the job, was shocked to meet Estepa, who regularly travels to stores and has meetings with managers. She recalled the store manager saying, “I would never have in my life expected to sit down with the president and be able to ask questions and be able to give my opinion.”

That kind of access to management has big benefits to longevity.

Take Dustin Welch, a 34-year-old Journeys district manager based in Los Angeles, who has been with Journeys for the last 15 years. He began as a college student part time in the stockroom and now manages 25 stores. His goal is to move to the corporate office by becoming a top sales executive.

And his dream isn’t unrealistic: About 75 percent of the employees in Journeys’ Nashville headquarters started their careers in retail stores. “Journeys has a unique structure where we promote from within and we offer growth based on performance, and that’s very appealing to my generation,” said Welch, who admitted his competitive nature thrives in the Journeys culture, which offers incentives like sales contests.

Journeys Genesco store Journeys store Courtesy of company

The Balancing Act
One of the top reasons millennials are attracted to a particular company is the freedom to express who they are, even in the workplace.

When it opened in 1986, Journeys was arguably one of the first retailers to encourage sales associates to be their “authentic selves.” There was no corporate dress code, the team embraced diversity and made room for independence and autonomy — facets that are still part of the company culture today.

“I started [at Journeys] with a mohawk and a ton of piercings, and I have worked with mentors who have embraced that and accepted that. Now I’m the one talking to the kid with the mohawk and the piercings,” said Welch.

For U.K.-based Pentland Group, the fashion firm has focused heavily on developing a dynamic corporate environment to attract and retain strong talent. Chairman Andy Rubin said during his FN CEO Summit presentation in Miami last May that because the company has its offices in the suburbs of London, making the culture creative is key.

So that includes a gym, a pool, a football pitch, a restaurant and a coffee shop, he said. Also: “You have a DJ in the gym. That’s just normal stuff these days,” said Rubin.

But while perks are certainly desirable for millennials — such as “premium coffee offerings and optimal Wi-Fi to work anywhere in the office,” as Vans’ Van Doren revealed — millennials also require time off to pursue their own ways of experiencing life.

“They live their life on social media and through experiences, and they need time to have experiences. So that’s a high priority for them,” said Estepa. “They don’t want to work 60 hours a week.”

And at Journeys, the corporate support for millennials’ work-life preferences translates to their interactions with consumers. The full impact is shown via sales results and, eventually, as contributions to the bottom line.

“We’re performance-based and -oriented,” said Estepa. “Every one of our jobs is to address sales and profits first. Our No. 1 core value is to drive sales with every action. That’s top-of-mind for everyone.”

Millennials place a big focus on giving back to society. Janne Ivonen

Giving Back
Millennials are often defined by their desire to make an impact on causes they care about.

Mark King, president and CEO of Adidas North America, told a crowd at the FN CEO Summit in May, “Young people today are not interested in balance sheets and income statements. They want to be a part of a company and brand that’s trying to make the world a better place. It’s a really, really important thing, this aspiration.”

In response, many firms make their philanthropy programs a priority.

Journeys and Vans, for instance, have partnered several times on the Vans Custom Culture contest to aid waning art budgets in high schools. The retailer also partners with Converse and the Grammy Foundation to support high school music teachers through its Attitude That Cares program.

At Vionic, employees are involved with the local Center for Domestic Peace, they volunteer time at the San Francisco Marin Food Bank, and the brand also donates sample footwear to local charities, said Romanoff.

“Millennials are really making a change to how businesses are working, and it’s far more humane what they’ve encouraged,” she added. “It creates a lot more respect and a lot more communication. There’s such an opportunity to share their opinions and ideas. It has such a huge impact on the direction of an organization.”

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