By Jim Grinnell, Ph.D.
I have been teaching college students for 15 years, so I have a lot of experience with 18-22 year olds. About five years ago I started noticing a significant difference in the nature of the kids I was teaching. They weren’t necessarily better (or worse) and I didn’t necessarily like them more (or less). They were, well, just different. Or, as I like to say, they were differently-enabled. As a result of this perceptible shift, I began investigating this generation of twenty-something’s (referred to as Millennials or Generation Y). Based on my experience coupled with additional research, I have identified several general observations that are applicable to effectively leading this anomalous group of young people.
1) Be prepared to deal with incredibly high maintenance individuals. Arguably, Millennials are the most structured generation in human history. They are the play-date, yodel camp, after-school-program generation that grew up under the tight scheduling of their “day-timer” parents. Because they were so over-managed by their parents, you’ll find (and be frustrated that) they’ll need help prioritizing tasks. Compounding this frustration, this is a generation that bristles at micro-managing. Even when they need it, they will likely take umbrage if you step in to guide them. Just as a cat will brush against your leg when it wants attention, so it is with Millennials when it comes to providing assistance. Be prepared to provide it when they ask, not when you see them going astray.
2) Don’t think you can lead them the way you were led. Millennials have a much different view of leadership than their Baby Boomer parents (and their Generation X cousins). They were brought up to question why. Why do you do it that way? Why don’t we do it this way? Why should I do it in the first place? So, be prepared to answer a lot of questions, and don’t expect that they will accept the “I told you to do it that way, that’s why” answer. Millennials also discount rank and titles and instead focus on ability. Often, you will feel like the pyramid has been inverted and you have to prove yourself to them! And definitely don’t think they’ll work well under the pacesetting/autocratic leadership approach (SEE my previous post Approaches to Leadership). Instead, this generation has been custom-tailored for the coaching approach.
3) Expect them to walk away freely and often. In 1956 William Whyte published his classic book The Organization Man. In this book, Whyte described the risk-averse herd of grey flannel clad managers who showed up to the company fresh and young and left thirty years later (a little balder and a little plumper, clutching the gold watch they received as they shuffled out the door). Millennials in no way, shape or form resemble their grandparents (or parents for that matter). They may show up young and fresh, but if they don’t feel challenged right out of the gate, they’ll jump ship without remorse if a better opportunity presents itself. It’s not that they’re disloyal or greedy. Instead, this is a generation that desires instant gratification and expects to be dropped into high profile projects without “earning their stripes.” Bruce Tulgan, author of Managing Generation Y, says the following of Millennials: “They’re like Generation X on steroids. They walk in with high expectations for themselves, their employer, their boss. If you thought you saw a clash when Generation X came into the workplace, that was the fake punch. The haymaker is coming now.”
4) It’s not just about “showing them the money.” Make no mistake about it, Millenials expect that they’ll be well compensated for what they do. (After all, this is the generation whose weekly spending in high school often eclipsed $100.) But, these individuals will expect so much more than just a paycheck for their efforts. They also want the training and development that will enable them to take on evermore challenging tasks. In fact, their ADD-afflicted nature drives Millennials to seek new and exciting challenges. So, unlike Baby-Boomers, who could be bribed into complacency, Millennials will promptly move to a new job if they feel stultified.
5) Millennials “work to live” instead of “live to work.” Their parents ushered in the Age of Aquarius and then traded it all in for pin-stripes, Beamers, and stock options. Millennials are firmly committed to seeing their parents’ utopian dreams become reality. These individuals seek work-life balance, which means that they will not be shackled by a 8:00-6:00 schedule, they will not place their careers above family and friends, and they will not be held hostage by a paycheck. Golden handcuffs will not bind this generation! Additionally, Millennials are very civic-minded, so they will be looking for how their companies give back to society. Millennials came of age during the scandal laden post-Enron world. Thus, they want to work for a company that not only acts ethically, but actually contributes to the community, country, world, and galaxy. According to a poll of Millennials by Monster.com, 80% of the respondents indicated that they wanted to work with a company that has a positive environmental impact.
6) Millennials love technology. Why wouldn’t they? They literally never knew of a world without personal computers, cell phones, video games, etc. Their technological prowess cannot be overstated. In an American Demographics article, author Michael Weiss noted that this generation of multitaskers consumes upwards of 31 hours of media content in a 24 hour period. The problem therefore isn’t getting them up to speed with workplace technology. Instead it’s the workplace figuring out how to tap this wellspring of technological know-how. Some companies have successfully unleashed Millennials on tech projects with great results. Best Buy, for instance, rejected a bid from a consulting firm to develop its internal employee web portal and instead unleashed a group of its own Millennials on the project. The end result was a robust system that cost a fraction of the multi-million dollar sticker price of the professional consulting firm.
7) This generation is infinitely well suited for working in teams. They are innately sociable, collaborative, and outgoing. And, they were reared in an environment that embraced inclusion and diversity, thus they are well suited for working with all types of people. But, don’t expect them to interface with their teammates the same as previous generations. Millennials are likely to use text messages and social media to communicate as much as traditional face-to-face contact. (Don’t be surprised if they set up a Facebook page for their team!) And unlike their parents who spend considerable time in the Forming and Norming stages of team development (SEE my previous post Dive Right Into Norming), Millennials will jump right into the Performing stage and start tackling problems right out of the gate.
Millennials offer great promise to organizations, but unless their uniqueness is appreciated and accommodated that promise will go untapped. If you manage Millennials, consider the following advice:
1) Help them develop their professional demeanor. In some regards, this generation is highly advanced. Their stratospheric self-esteems and out-going nature makes them naturals at presenting. You will be astounded when these folks get in front of an audience. But their Web 2.0 preference for IMs and text messages may render them less suited to traditional forms of business communication. They are not well prepared to integrate into a formal business environment, thus smart companies are finding ways to acclimate these folks into the workplace while also accommodating their needs and preferences.
2) Be a good mentor. This generation is incredibly close to their parents and therefore will be highly receptive to guidance from their Baby Boomer bosses. While Gen Xers like myself rebuffed senior colleagues who attempted to mentor us, Millennials welcome such efforts. Millennials love their parents and that goodwill will carry over to their Boomer bosses. If your company doesn’t have a formal mentoring program, consider getting one for the Millennials.
3) Provide lots of challenge complemented with lots of feedback. You will do yourself a huge favor if you schedule regular one-on-one’s with these folks. They need real-time feedback, not with respect to what they are doing, but rather with how they are doing. They will not wait until the annual review. But, be delicate when you deliver negative feedback. Millennials are the product of the “everyone’s a winner” movement that pervaded every facet of their lives, from the classroom to the soccer field. So the urge for feedback actually translates into an urge for affirmation. Even when you are delivering reasonably benign developmental feedback, you might find them crumbling in response.
4) Be overt in your expectations up front. Millennials grew up having outcomes planned for them. Thus, setting expectations is one of the only things Millennials will cede to you. Once the outcomes are defined, as noted above they want to be left alone to do it. Unless they seek out help, stay out of their way. Setting clear and appropriately confining expectations is your best bet for corralling this herd of cats.
5) Invest in them. Millennials were brought up to believe that they are the center of the universe. This generation has been doted upon from birth, which created a generation that is always seeking opportunities to grow and develop. As Bruce Tulgan notes in his book Not Everyone Gets A Trophy, “GenYers don’t need to be humored in the workplace. They need to be taken seriously. Managers need to hold them to high standards and help them every step of the way to reach those high standards.”
6) Make work fun. Don’t let work become a drudgery for Millennials, and certainly don’t take away their Facebook and earbuds. To retain and motivate Millennials, you have to make sure that they are stimulated, that work relationships are positive/upbeat, and that they work in a vibrant environment.
If there’s one super-ordinate conclusion about Millennials, it’s that they will change the workplace in profound ways. Sheer demographics will force this as the first Baby Boomers have officially reached retirement age. In the next two decades there will be a giant sucking sound as Boomers exit the workplace. And the reality is that with only 45 million Gen Xers stepping into the breach, there are simply not enough of us forty-something’s to close the gap. Technology, outsourcing, and prolonged economic malaise will certainly mitigate this situation. But, in the end the sheer size and economic impact of these 78 million Millennials will be felt. The question is, are you ready to receive the benefit of these hyperactive, high-maintenance Millennials?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: James Grinnell is an Associate Professor of Management at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Studies from the University of Massachusetts. His areas of focus include leadership, organizational change & development, high-performance teams, and strategic management.