Matts Johansen spent much of his youth in Norway skateboarding: learning tricks and how to take risks. And they are skills he has brought to his role as chief executive of fishing and biotech company Aker BioMarine.
“The only way to progress as a skateboarder is to try things you haven’t done before and develop,” he explains. “I try to bring that into business. As a skateboarder, your ‘equity’ is your body and failing means pain, so you learn to balance the risks, and do what you can to maximise success.”
Johansen’s non-traditional path into corporate life means he often looks beyond formal experience when hiring. He likes to give people of different ages and backgrounds — who can “think fresh and think differently” — responsibility for key parts of business strategy.
As these younger generations move up through the workforce everywhere, they will inevitably have a growing influence on how companies are run. Forward-thinking leaders, therefore, are paying attention to how young people think, and what they set as goals or aspirations.
At Aker BioMarine, a strategic focus on sustainability is driven by younger employees, for whom environmental and social purpose is a priority, says Johansen.
“Younger people can be better at challenging the status quo,” he says. “There are many changes in society that companies have to adapt to. We see an increased focus on sustainability where the younger generation has become a driving force for innovative solutions.” When Aker BioMarine’s recent recruits were surveyed, two-thirds said the main reason why they chose the company was its strong purpose, which is “to improve human and planetary health”. In practice, this means embracing new technology and making sustainable choices.
Kate Bragg, a millennial herself, works in renewable energy strategy and was most recently a vice-president at Norwegian renewables company Statkraft. “Work is more than work for lots of millennials and the mission statement of a company matters a lot to their own identity and how they see themselves in the world,” she says.
This puts the onus on companies to think about how they recruit and retain younger cohorts, which can include millennials (25 to 40 years old) and Generation Z (aged 11-24).
Millennials are now starting to move into more senior positions. “They are a group that want to change jobs every two to three years; they want to be challenged, to go and have different experiences,” says Bragg. She says that, to retain them, companies must go beyond mission statements and practise what they preach.
“The upside of purpose-driven millennials is that they are very focused, talented and passionate,” she says. “But if you have promised them an environment where their voice will be heard, you need to give them this or be prepared for them to leave.” Offering development opportunities and mobility throughout the organisation will be crucial, says Bragg, as well as ensuring younger employees understand the context of their roles.
For leaders like Johansen, a commitment to responsible business values is fundamental for attracting and retaining younger talent.
“As a CEO, it’s not that I’m that purpose-driven, it’s just that I believe it is good for business,” he says. “The difference between me and the younger generation coming in is that they genuinely care about the purpose. If you don’t have a strong purpose and clear meaning of what the company is doing, you’re not going to be able to get those talents and keep them.”
Younger employees taking an interest in a company’s values can only be a positive thing, says Danielle Harmer, chief people officer at UK insurance company Aviva.
“It’s fabulous that young people, at the start of their careers, are so aware of and discerning about the long-term aims and responsibilities of their employer,” she says. “We encourage our graduate community to get fully involved in our sustainability agenda. As part of their programme, our graduates form teams for the Aviva sustainability challenge to create solutions for our customers, communities and the climate.”
“Companies want to create value,” says Kiran Aziz, senior impact investment analyst at KLP Asset Management in Norway. “But this value can no longer be gained if ethical, environmental and social goals are not being taken into consideration.”
This recognition that organisations have obligations not just to shareholders but to stakeholders — including customers, employees, suppliers and communities — is growing. It is these stakeholders who have been pushing environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues to the fore.
Aziz says “This has been driven by increased social, governmental and consumer attention on the broader impact corporations have, as well as by institutional investors embracing the notion a strong ESG focus can safeguard a company’s long-term success.”
At Aker BioMarine, Johansen notes that “A lot of this [younger] generation are now coming into decision-making positions and as customers, suppliers, and in society in general, [where they are] starting to influence on that side as well.”
In the short term, Bragg says that, as consumers, young people already influence companies’ products and what they invest in — citing Tesla’s decision to stop accepting bitcoin on fossil-fuel usage grounds and Amazon becoming the biggest user of renewable power in the world.
For all companies, then, sustainability values cannot be a priority only when times are good, says Bragg. “For example, when oil companies experience a drop in oil prices, if the first thing they do is cut their renewables focus, then current and future employees will know these companies are not serious about their sustainable agenda,” she says.
Honesty about the trade-offs is crucial, Bragg adds. In renewable energy, there are “huge societal gains from a climate perspective, but there are many unanswered questions on biodiversity, which responsible companies need to continue to grapple with”. This is an opportunity, though: “Use your purpose-driven employees to help solve these things,” she says.
If organisations can harness the drive of younger employees to generate growth, it could be a win-win for everyone, Bragg believes. “There are a bunch of problems we need to solve in society, and Generation Z and millennials are probably the group with the most momentum to do this. We need to help them achieve that.”
For Nigyar Makhmudova, chief growth officer at French food group Danone, having agile teams — in which projects are led by the most expert, not the most senior, person — is one way to harness the enthusiasm of younger generations. “We all know millennials are attracted by ability to get diverse and multiple experiences,” she says. “Since many of those challenges involve sustainability and increasing our online presence, younger people are often best equipped to tackle these challenges.”
This mobilises young voices while also accelerating their learning and development, argues Makhmudova.
Ultimately, says Bragg, it comes down to capturing the drive of younger employees in a way that creates value for the business. “It’s making sure there is a balance between growth and profitability, and that you bring the two together. Then you really are on to something winning in terms of purpose.”
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