Millennials In Corporate America: Run From The Factory

Millennial Factory Feature

by John Graham


You don’t need permission to be great! ~ Seth Godin


This phrase has been running through my mind on constant loop for about a week straight. After hearing it in Seth Godin’s groundbreaking book “Tribes” I couldn’t shake the feeling that I, like so many of my generation who find themselves trying to climb the corporate ladder, are seeking permission to be extraordinary. After running into brick wall after brick wall within the corporate structure an epiphany struck. Most corporations are factories and factories don’t want extraordinary. They want the status quo.

This is not an indictment of any one particular company. It’s more of a realization that all companies who thrive on predictable outcomes, repeatable processes, and interchangeable people, are relics of the industrial age. In a time where all of the above mentioned tangibles were necessary to produce goods at low cost in mass volume this made perfect sense. They had ample human resources with very little formal education but a strong need to feed and support their families. Then they put them in the factory, gave them a manual, and a supervisor to ensure that the prescribed methods of production were being carried out efficiently and cost effectively; the perfect recipe for the American dream. This went on for over 150 years and companies who mastered this model became iconic monuments to American ingenuity and the economic foundation for America’s superpower status. Then the internet happened…

As millennials we find more value in doing meaningful work than producing a high output of faceless, orderless, and tasteless TPS reports. We thrive on the ability to reach out directly to anyone in any area of the company that is open to dialogue about how we can make the company better. The idea of free flowing information that is not only accessible but transparently shared between departments and leadership is not a foreign concept to us but rather a default imperative. A structure where a well thought out idea can come from anyone and be taken seriously regardless of their title and tenure is a tenet of our generation. The amazing thing that I’ve learned through personal experience and the experiences of some of my counterparts is a very sobering lesson. Extremely large, historically successful companies want no part of the millennial ideal in the workplace. “Why not” you ask?… Because it’s different and different has no place in a factory!

Failed Companies

The bigger they are the harder they fall is a very real statement that applies to some of the most iconic brands. We’ve seen 100 year brands like Kodak and Sears come toppling down due to their inability to adapt to change. More recent titans of industry like Blockbuster and Blackberry who both rose fast and fell even faster refused to consider the possibility that conditions wouldn’t always remain the same. At its peak Blockbuster was generating over $800 million in late fee revenue a year. In fact, Netflix was created after founder Reed Hastings received a $40 late fee from his overdue Blockbuster rental of Apollo 13.  Oddly enough after achieving success with Netflix Hastings offered to sell it to Blockbuster for a measly $20 million. Blockbuster declined because they were the leader of their industry and never considered a future where that wouldn’t be the case. No need to guess what happened, just ask yourself when’s the last time you rented a movie from Blockbuster. This is a great example of the company that clung to the factors of their success as the way to sustain it. The adage “What got you here won’t get you there” has never been more applicable than in the digital age.

If you are still trying to figure out if you work in a corporate factory just ask yourself these three questions:

1) When was the last time I was encouraged to bring ideas to my manager that weren’t requested?

2) Am I measured on productivity or creativity?

3) Am I an interchangeable piece in a machine or a highly necessary factor in the company’s success?

Answering these questions personally opened my eyes to the fact that I not only work in a factory but what I’m inherently designed to do is not welcomed or valued in the factory setting. Learning this earlier rather than later is the best thing you can do for your career. You’ll save time and high levels of frustration from trying to offer up innovative ideas and solutions to problems not yet recognized because you’ll know that you weren’t hired to be creative you were hired to be productive.

Millennials In Corporate America

Another telltale sign of the factory model is the “Manager” concept. Managers are there to manage people carrying out repeatable processes at low cost and high productivity. The more their workers produce the better they’re viewed as a manager thus leading to promotion. Managers aren’t interested in any ideas unless they help them achieve those two functions. To believe otherwise is foolish. You’ll be hard pressed to find a manager who’s going to standup for your creative solution on how to improve customer experience if A: That’s not your job. B: That’s not their job. and C: There’s no personal benefit for them to do so. The manager’s manager more than likely is not interested in upsetting the apple cart and risking any good standing with their manager for your moment of inspiration. What will happen is you will most assuredly stand out as “Different” and that is a synonym for “Troublemaker”; that’s from firsthand experience. Remembering that factory models are designed to work from the top down will help you avoid any illusions of grandeur that you can effectively change things without the title or granted authority to do so.

The strongest point of advice I can give any millennial whether you’re 12 years deep into the workforce or you’re looking for your first gig out of undergrad, RUN FROM THE FACTORY! You are the generation that is going to head the next major corporation, probably because you’ll have created it in your dorm room or your mom’s basement. You are feared by execs who rose to power through the old model and are now being tasked with adapting to our new reality. You know how to solve today’s challenges largely because you’ve lead the disruptions in the industries to make them challenges in the first place. To give up your freedom for the perceived security of a job will eat at your soul and relieve you of the most valuable years of your life with little to show for it. Discover what you are willing to commit intense time and resources to become better at (AKA your Passion) and then find a company that will support, encourage, challenge, and reward you for having the courage to let them benefit from it. You are the generation that doesn’t need permission to be extraordinary.

I highly recommend that you add Tribes to your book collection. I’ve included the audio version for you below. Enjoy and share with anyone who needs the inspiration to be great!



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