I spend much of my time with senior executives from organizations in, shall we say, not the most glamorous fields: community banks, electrical distributors, heartland manufacturers, and, perhaps least glamorous of all, insurance companies. These executives are rightly proud of what their organizations do, and they can get people like me excited about their plans for growth and change. But they have one huge problem that literally keeps them up at night: Young people find their companies dull and don’t have much enthusiasm for a career in their field. I hear it time and again — How can we compete with Facebook or Google for young engineers? How can we attract digitally savvy marketers against Starbucks or Amazon?
Their challenge, in other words, is to make their “boring” companies “cool” — to persuade 20-somethings to join an organization or work in a field that doesn’t exactly sizzle. It’s a worthwhile challenge — indeed, a make-or-break challenge — but there are right and wrong ways to address it. Two recent articles, both chronicling efforts by insurance executives to make their field more alluring to the young crowd, show the promise and pitfalls of changing an industry’s image. They can help executives in lots of traditional fields think about how to battle for talent.
Let’s start with the pitfalls. A front-page article in the Wall Street Journal notes, insurance companies have to make 500,000 new hires over the next few years, as waves of industry lifers retire. Unfortunately, young people “just don’t want to work for insurance companies,” the Journal reports, which has led some companies to develop brash recruiting campaigns. One midsize company, based in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, built a recruiting video around a young actuary dressed as a zombie, to show that “we really like to have fun around here.” At college recruiting events, the company “served huge mounds of freshly cooked bacon” and installed a Ferris wheel at headquarters to entertain newcomers. Meanwhile, one life insurance giant opened an office in New York City featuring “spaces that feel start-uppy,” free beer any time, and weirdly named conference rooms such as “Asteroid Impact” and “Snake Bite.”
I appreciate the creativity, and I’m sure these initiatives are well intentioned, but I fear they miss the point. Young people have lots of access to zombie makeup and cheap beer. What they value is the chance to join companies that make a difference and where the work brings out the best in them. That’s why a giant insurance company such as USAAhas been able to build a passion brand in the marketplace and an energetic workplace. No one would accuse USAA of being boring — it provides vital financial services to active and retired members of the U.S. military and their families and has unleashed a staggering array of digital innovations. Its culture is fairly conservative — more starched shirts than Ferris wheels — but its appeal to young employees is undeniable. Substance matters more than style.
Another recent article, this one in the New York Times, offers a more promising strategy for making a “boring” industry cool. The article describes a program at Butler University in which students experience the intellectual rigors and human emotions of insurance, a field that “lacks sex appeal,” the article concedes. The premise of the program is that the best way to get young people excited about a field is to let them work in that field and see how intriguing it can be. So a group of students runs a company that insures, among other things, the school’s mascot, its collection of Steinway pianos, and the businesses of student-run organizations. The company competes with commercial insurers, which gives students the chance to outthink and out-innovate established players. “If you think insurance is boring,” the Times concludes, “you haven’t really thought it through. The industry is at least partly about the fascinating science of human behavior, from recklessness to neglect and our collective efforts to behave responsibly that never end in total success.”
Butler’s small program makes a big point. In addition to wanting to do work that matters, talented young people want a chance to work with big problems and tough issues. Consider a big bet on young talent made by Big Blue. IBM is hardly a boring company, but for years it had trouble recruiting against internet upstarts. Who wants to work there as opposed to Apple or Google? So it created a wildly successful internship program called Extreme Blue, in which college-age programmers tackle high-stakes projects and work closely with IBM’s most senior technologists. Getting a taste of real life at IBM has persuaded lots of young people to open their minds about a career at this “conservative” company.
So to all of you who are running companies, leading teams, or managing projects far away from digital hotspots: It’s hard to create an exciting or compelling future for your organization if you can’t make what you do exciting and compelling to talented young people. That doesn’t mean trying to mimic the trappings of life in Silicon Valley. It means giving young people a taste of life in your business, and giving them a sense that being in your business will make their life more interesting and satisfying.