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VOL. 7 | NO. 36 | Saturday, August 30, 2014

Millennials Bring ‘Out-of-the-Box Mentality’ to Workplace

By Andy Meek

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The young creatives included among the workforce at Sullivan Branding don’t just bring fresh thinking and out of the box perspectives to projects and client work.

This particular demographic, often tagged as millennials, also brings with it ideas about what a company culture should look like and how a workplace should operate – including its core values and strategic priorities – that all tend to stand apart from those ideas of older generations.

Indeed, Sullivan Branding CEO Brian Sullivan says that millennials cast a long shadow of influence at his firm that causes it to “think differently” in how it recruits employees and how it treats the idea of being in the professional services business.

And the way that reality is playing out at Sullivan is a microcosm of the way younger employees are reshaping the modern workforce and leaving their own particular stamp on modern office life across the wider corporate landscape.

Sullivan Branding account manager Madeline Patterson in the company's Downtown offices.

(Andrew J. Breig)

“When you think about it, there’s really several things people want in a workplace,” Sullivan said. “They want to have fun when they can. They want to be engaged in the community. They want flexibility, and they want the opportunity for career development.”

One way Sullivan tries to take that and incorporate it into its own company culture is through something the firm calls its Fuel Committee.

That committee’s job is no less than to help shape the agency’s culture. It does everything from planning events to figuring out ways the company can get involved with area nonprofits. It started out, Sullivan said, with participation from less than 10 people, and now it has the support of more than 50 percent of the agency.

And that’s the way Sullivan says he prefers it.

Sullivan Branding recent hire Mikel Howard.

(Andrew J. Breig)

“It doesn’t matter what kind of place I want to work at. This needs to be a reflection of where they want to work,” he said, referring to the millennials his firm employs.

And it extends, of course, beyond the Fuel Committee. Every Thursday afternoon, for example, Sullivan has a staff meeting in which 15 minutes is set aside for an exercise.

Employees are divided into groups, and they get presented with a client issue or challenge to brainstorm. They huddle, then come back and present their top ideas. Some of them get shown later to clients in a kind of blue-sky brainstorming session.

“We want to create opportunities for employees, and the work space is set up so it forces collaboration,” Sullivan said. “People don’t want to just go into an office and be assigned tasks. Here, people can come in and help shape the culture.”

Those people include Madeline Patterson, who came to Sullivan after graduating from Rhodes. She’s been with the firm for two years now, and one reason she’s still here and loves the work is that it’s not a clock-punching, monotonous routine.

“Our generation is looking for a challenge, and we’re so used to things being fast-paced,” she said. “We don’t want to do the same thing every day for two years.”

Young professionals who feel the same way include Kerry Crawford, a content strategist at Simple Focus.

Sullivan Branding account manager Brandon Corley distributes beverages from the S.S. George Michael, a beverage cart that makes its rounds on Thursday afternoons, to co-workers Natalie Holcomb, left, and Kristen Griffin.

(Andrew J. Breig)

After working mostly from home for four years as a blogger for I Love Memphis, she decided to make a professional switch. She chose Simple Focus partly because of the office culture.

She said the employees are talented, the space is pleasant, but even more important was that owner JD Graffam consider a good work-life balance to be important. And as long as employees meet their deadlines, she was also pleased to see that they’re free to pursue them in the way that suits them best.

“More than anything, millennials want to be heard,” said Carver Communications founder Nicole Harris. “We often possess an out-of-the-box mentality that’s often frowned upon in traditional office cultures. The reality is that finding new ways to do old things are what we’re best at doing.

“Flexibility is part of that. If, as a manager, you say something can't be done, we look to you to allow us to stretch our thought process and flex until we come up with a better way. Millennials and innovation go hand in hand.”

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