“What’s your dream job?”
“I don’t dream of work,” said the young employee.
I smiled when I heard that reply, thinking just how much has changed from when I started my career. When I began working, people would tell me, “Find a great company, try and see it through, and if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll go end to end.” I am not repeating that same advice to my children, ages 23, 21, and 17—for good reason.
This is a real moment in time—accelerated by COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, record inflation, and political strife—to reimagine industry as a purpose-driven force for global betterment. Born as digital natives with personal agency and facing a labor shortage, record class stratification, and untenable living costs, Gen Z has significantly shifted their concept of a career.
Not long ago, I asked a recent Sanofi hire, “Why did you join us?” She’s a very talented individual in her early 30s, with a background in venture capital. Her reply surprised me. “Collecting experiences and time in a big healthcare company is one of the necessary experiences for me. I may start my own company after I’ve been here,” she explained. And this was when she was just a few days into the job.
Executives and business leaders like myself must understand that today’s talent is looking at experiences and chapters. A typical career used to resemble something like this: Start at a company, work your way up the ladder, get promoted, and then retire. That mentality has shifted. I believe something new is emerging. Top-tier talent is saying: “I’ll bring from day one my experiences, and I’ll help you be a better company. But I will leave at some point, and you should not be concerned by that. I will leave it better than I found it, but I will also leave better than I arrived.”
Adopting a purpose-driven mindset
I’ve been in the healthcare industry for over 30 years, and it’s only ever been about making lives better. Even on a bad day, somebody’s life got better because of work we did. We need to hold onto that in a purpose-driven industry. Employees want to feel like they are working for a company that aligns with their values and brings real breakthroughs to the populations it serves.
COVID-19 opened my eyes and those of my colleagues and the CEOs of other major organizations to the Gen Z ethos of values, work-life balance, questioning the status quo, and seeking fulfillment and worth. Gen Z, millennials, and others are demanding more from their employers: They want transparency, respect, empathy, sustainability, and support for continued growth and development. They also expect real action from leadership on diversity and inclusion. This is the most diverse generation thus far in the United States, with only 52% identifying as white non-Hispanic, and 99% of those surveyed by Tallo rating workplace DEI as important.
We’re witnessing a new chapter in the modern workforce: a convergence of technology and purpose. This generation has simply had enough of older and other generations discounting their lived experiences, underestimating their capabilities, and standing in the way of progress on pressing issues: climate change, crumbling economies, and global health challenges.
Unburdened by legacy commitments and unwilling to wait for the world to change on its own, young people are leaving to pursue passion projects, manifesting in new innovations and discoveries, and ushering in a new era of self-actualization, and surveys show that almost two-thirds state they plan to possibly start their own business in the future.
There are four things business leaders at all levels need to keep in focus when encouraging their Gen Z employees:
- Communicate early and often: Integrate Gen Z into the company and create a sense of community, understanding, and connection to those across business units and functions. Communicate when there’s big news as well as other times when the situation is unclear. Remember to be empathetic and work to answer questions while embracing varying opinions that emerge.
- Provide stretch assignments: Ensure that young people are challenged and feeling that they’re continuously learning, with strong mentorship, new tools, and training. Reassure them that failure is an essential element in innovating and in setting the framework for the next innovation.
- Use automation and AI to support growth: The advent of AI applications and other technological advancements can assist younger employees’ quest for personal and collective fulfillment. Instead of having someone crunch numbers in an Excel grid, it’s better to designate that task for AI so the employee can spend more drawing insights from the data and creating solutions instead of handling menial, repetitive tasks.
- Create a listening culture: In meetings and in key team decisions, young people need to feel they have a voice and input into strategic activities and new directions for their team. Embed young people in small and fast-moving teams so they can more easily engage and speak up to provide input.
At my daughter’s recent University of Michigan commencement, journalist and philanthropist Maria Shriver toasted the class of 2022: “Your generation has been given the gift of a shredded rule book, a wide-open field,” she said. “So much of what used to be called normal is out the window. This uncertain moment that you and our world are facing, it’s an incredible opportunity for you.”
It’s an exciting time to be a CEO; to father the result of such a cultural shift means we must accept that talent is seeking shorter and shorter times at an organization and ensure that their time with us is well spent. I am taking a cue from my kids and younger generations, unlearning as much as I am learning, and reexamining what the workplace could be, and what gives me purpose: the lesson of a lifetime.
Paul Hudson is the CEO of Sanofi.