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How one CEO bends the rules to get the most out of millennials

By Allan Chernoff, CNN Senior Correspondent
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Kids 'teach' the boss
  • "Life first, work second" for many millennials in work force
  • Their likes and dislikes are changing the way America works
  • Managing millennials requires checked egos, thick skin

(CNN) -- "What time of day do you think we should be open?" veteran public relations executive Marian Salzman asks her staff.

"10, 10:30," comes the response from several 20-something employees, along with a few giggles.

Salzman isn't about to keep the doors closed until 10:30 a.m., but she's listening.

The chief executive officer of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR has been doing plenty of listening to her staff of about 80. The vast majority of them are members of the millennial generation -- born after 1980 -- and some of their requests might be considered audacious by executives many years their senior.

Millennials at Euro RSCG have asked for free food, which Google offers; a juice bar; a yoga/Pilates room; even reimbursement for a personal trainer. Saltzman didn't grant any of those perks, but she understands that they may not seem outrageous for someone with a millennial mindset.

"They want the workplace to recognize that they're not 9-to-5 people. They're not people that are ever going to wear gray flannel suits," Salzman said.

For many millennials, the priority is, "life first, work second."

"I have a girlfriend. I have family. I have friends. And these are all things that are very important, because we work to live and not the other way around," Euro RSCG staffer Greg Housset said.

As millennials play an increasingly important role in the work force, their likes and dislikes are changing the way America works and forcing a growing number of executives in a wide range of industries to change policies and management style.

Millennials have seen their parents laid off and burned out by corporate America, so life/work balance is especially important to them, management experts say.

"If you want to get the best people, you have to meet them halfway," said Robert DelCampo, associate professor at the University of New Mexico's Anderson School of Management. "Being inflexible won't get you anywhere."

So, Euro-RSCG does permit very casual dress: Tattoos are on display, as are toes sticking out of flip-flops. The company sponsors rooftop happy hours three days a week, offers half-day summer Fridays and gives time off for volunteer work.

Hiring director Allison Pinter recently returned from a six-month volunteer stint with Yele Haiti in the aftermath of the country's devastating earthquake.

"I'm really lucky I got to do that and then come back to the job that I've loved for five years," Pinter said.

Salzman feels it's best not to manage from an authoritarian position. Rather, she strives to be a leader, peer and student of her young employees. Why? Because they are plugged into the social media revolution that is changing the way the world communicates, including corporate America.

"They're the new marketplace. They're the new brains. They come with all the social media tools and tricks embedded in them as natives," she said.

The public relations veteran recognizes that she needs to be flexible enough to accommodate as many requests as possible from her young staffers, requests she says she wouldn't have dared made when she was starting her career in the early '80s.

Managing millennials requires executives to check their egos and build up a thick skin. Not only are young employees demanding, they're quick to voice criticism, even online for the world to see, something Salzman has experienced. But she's put aside inclinations to exert her power in favor of recognizing the potential of her young employees, who she argues are anything but slackers.

"You're not the smartest person in the room anymore. You may be the most experienced. You may be the wisest. You're not the smartest," she said.

It's paid off for Euro-RSCG Worldwide PR. The firm has enjoyed strong growth under Salzman, with clients including Kmart and pharmaceutical firms Sanofi and Bayer.

The millennial style of working can yield success if the boss is willing to throw out the old rulebook.