These Lessons from the Military Can Help You Be More Successful Recruiting and Managing Young Employees

There is much to learn from those who lead the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard when it comes to recruiting and managing today’s younger generation of employees. Your director of marketing, HR, GMs, branch managers, parts and service managers – every leader in your dealership should pay attention to what the military can teach. 

Consider, for example, how the military overcame a serious challenge in meeting its recruitment goals. In 2018, the Army came up short by 6,500 enlistees. The reasons for this were many. One problem was its “Army Strong” slogan. This tagline turned out to be less compelling than its much more powerful and effective predecessor, “Be All You Can Be.”

The Army soon realized that it needed a better understanding of the younger generation and what makes that demographic tick.

To gain those insights, Army leaders paid visits to recruitment offices around the country. Little of what they came back with should surprise anyone. They heard what we already know – that young people are tech-crazy, fascinated by apps, glued to their cell phones, avid users of social media, love new experiences, value life balance, are impatient, and are outspoken.

Surprising nonetheless to investigators was the observation that members of the younger generation tend to be team-oriented, value harmony, and love to learn (all good traits to bring to the armed forces and to a dealership). On top of that, 20-somethings were found to desire to contribute to the betterment of society and to care deeply about social issues.

All of this convinced Army leaders to change their recruitment slogan to appeal to these virtues. The new tagline they came up with was “Warriors Wanted.” In concert with this change, the Army trotted out a revamped and energized website, offered more generous sign-up bonuses, and, most recently, began advertising the availability of training for specialties and futuristic cyber-tech roles. Taken as a whole, these steps got results. The Army ended fiscal year 2019 achieving its recruitment goal of 68,000 enlistees, according to a report at

1. Smart Recruitment Tactics

If you want to successfully recruit the younger generation, it can help to think of your company – like the Army did with itself – as a brand you need to market.

What’s your slogan like? Does it “sing” to the younger generation? Does it establish your dealership’s brand? 

One such possible recruiting slogan would be this to appeal to youth’s enchantment with all things technologic: “Harnessing High-Tech to Operate and Service Equipment.”

Or maybe headline your next want-ad with a series of questions like these: What do you love? To use state-of-the-art technology with heavy equipment? To help people? To problem-solve? To be part of a great team? To receive great benefits and bonuses? Come work with us!

2. Have a Cause!

If you haven’t established a cause for your business, you are indeed behind the times. Cause marketing helps nonprofits and worthwhile causes, increases brand awareness and attracts the younger generation. In a recent survey, nearly two-thirds expressed a preference to work for companies that make a positive impact on their community or society. A few ideas: “We Have a Habit of Giving to Habitat for Humanity.” “We Donate to the Wounded Warrior Project.” “We Care About Our Employees, Our Customers and Our Community.”

3. Lessons from the Trenches

In the military, young people are taught to follow orders. They are trained to respect their leaders and never challenge authority.

It’s different in the world of business. You’re not automatically due respect from the younger generation just because you’re the boss. You have to earn that respect. 

How? By communicating to your young employees with honesty, sincerity and caring. And any show of these qualities must extend as well to customers – even the difficult ones who become irate and out of control when they have to wait for a part.

 They say that military commanders need to lead by role modeling, setting a strong, indisputably good example for every activity. They must inspire their troops to embrace personal passion, courage, discipline, teamwork and high levels of performance. But never is this truer – or more critical – than for business leaders.

Military leaders also play the role of teachers and coaches. They do this all day, every day. Dealers should emulate them at every opportunity. Unfortunately, some are only focused on operations and the bottom line and feel they are too busy to give their time and attention to their millennials and Generation Z employees. For those dealers, dynamic leadership has fallen by the wayside.

 The good news is that progressive dealers are recognizing the invaluable contribution made by their exemplary conduct combined with a willingness to shepherd the young. This makes for business success and helps to ensure the future of their dealership – even if it’s tough.

4. Think of Them as Your Own Signal Corps

The Army’s Signal Corps is all about communication. When you hire members of the younger generation, you can expect to receive from them plenty of Signal Corps-style communication – and much of it in the form of outspokenness.

Rather than telling them to keep their ideas to themselves, you should be open to hearing what they have to say. That’s how retired Col. Robert Carr, Senior Fellow with the Kellogg School of Management, suggests you respond when young employees offer unsolicited opinions. Writing in a recent issue of Kellogg Insight, Carr said:

Our young recruits often come up with new ways of doing things, so you want to encourage that ingenuity. And it’s not always a bad thing to challenge the status quo. The key is to give them enough latitude to shake things up a bit without upending core traditions or standard operating procedures.

Leaders tend to get frustrated when millennials challenge them. And it’s true that some millennials can be very outspoken. But usually what they’re doing is stretching which isn’t always a bad thing. As a senior leader, you have to have the discernment to say: ‘This millennial isn’t challenging authority; they’re challenging the way things have been done,’ which forces you to be more agile, flexible, and innovative.

Applying Carr’s advice to your dealership, you may find it potentially very profitable to invite rather than wait for input from the younger generation. Form a “Young Leaders Club.” Ask your young salespeople, technicians, office personnel, and parts and service people to collaborate with you on figuring out ways to improve productivity, save money, improve operations, increase customer satisfaction, work in the field, and handle tough equipment repairs. From the suggestions they give, a solution just might emerge that makes all the difference in the world.

So be a dealer who promotes – better yet, demands – dynamic leadership throughout your organization, as well as peer support and camaraderie. Plan team get-togethers where employees both young and old can develop friendships and treat each other like family. Do fun stuff together! Donate to a worthy cause. Be bold about it!

Follow these marching orders and your business can win its battles for recruiting and retaining the young employees you need now and in the future.

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