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Alicia Blain

Guidelines for Managing Millennials


Like most Baby Boomers, I am used to getting information with enough detail and relevance that I can use it as needed. Notice I said as needed and not necessarily immediately. In other words, I like my information to be relatively meaty. One of the biggest lessons I learned in my lab when I was a corporate executive was that 20-somethings or Millennials don’t like information delivered the same way I like it. In fact, it’s just the opposite. They like it bite-sized, punchy and when needed and not a minute before. Instead of a meal, they want a snack.

That changed the way I communicated with this group in my team. It was also one of the determining factors in transforming the way I led. Since I learned and honed my management techniques and style under the 20th Century model, I was committed to communicating in the same way to all my team members. After all, I didn’t want to be accused of being inconsistent or treating people differently. How many times were we told that “one size fits all” was best when it came to employees? That way there was no confusion or misunderstandings.

Well, in the 21st Century model, when it comes to our newest job entrants and customers, one size fits all simply doesn’t work & is totally ineffective. When it comes to communicating, it’s absolutely necessary to chunk down your message. It’s called “information snacking”. Love the term!

I’m including a video where Mark Ragan, CEO of Ragan Communications is talking to Erin Lieberman Moran of the Great Place To Work Institute. By the way, the Great Place to Work Institute is the company that selects the top 100 companies to work for every year and Fortune Magazine reports on the results in their magazine. According to their website, Ragan Communications is the “leading publisher of corporate communications, public relations, and leadership development newsletters”. So both Erin and Mark know a thing or two about communicating in today’s world. Check out what they have to say about information snacking.

Right below that video, I included a video I did a couple of months ago from my Gen Yer on Fire series. The goal of the series is to highlight “the other side of Gen Y.” In other words, the good side of Gen Y that many of us as leaders often overlook. The series shows how Gen Yers are opting out of corporate careers and applying their creativity and hard work in areas they are passionate about.

So here’s Erin and Mark chatting about information snacking :

Here’s my Gen Yer on Fire video with a different but similar slant on information snacking. Oh, yeah, and one more thing: I’m not an actress and you’ll clearly see I don’t play one on the video. I’m just doing what Millennials say to do: live out loud and share my message!

So what about you? What can you do today to provide your 20-somethings with an information snack rather than a meal? I know you can do it !!!

Yesterday I was reading an article that referenced a survey conducted by Mercer  indicating that over 30% of employees are disillusioned and disengaged at work . For Gen Yers on the job, the number increases to over 40%.

The interviews I held with Gen Yers this past year validates the results of the Mercer survey.  In fact, I found that over 80% of the Gen Yers I interviewed had already left an unsatisfying job or were aggressively looking to leave.

But here’s what I find most baffling.  As I work with business leaders who want to get the most out of their Millennial staff, I find there is no desire on their part to change their way of leading or try something different.  A surprisingly large group of business leaders still believe that the Millennials are the ones who are going to have to adapt to the way organizations work.   I find that so many leaders are disillusioned themselves and are just plain tired of the corporate grind.  They have no desire or incentive to try something different, to capture the minds & talent of their Gen Y staff. Many of them have gone as far as to tell me that they are absolutely NOT going to “rock the boat”.  They are desperately holding on, keeping things the same until they can retire.

I find that to be sad and troubling.  By 2014, it is estimated that 50% of the workforce will be made up of Gen Yers yet they will be reporting to bosses who are holding on to the status quo and are not that motivated to engage & retain their young staff.  Many of them turn a deaf ear when it comes to understanding why Gen Yers are unfamiliar to them as new employees.  And even more interesting than that is that many leaders show a disconnect between how they raised their own Gen Y children and what they expect from them as employees.

Here’s an example. Recently, I was working with a manager who talked constantly about how involved she was in her college children’s lives.  She explained how she researched the universities they attended, talked with the dean and other assorted faculty & staff at the various colleges they were considering and countless other details that showed how involved she was in their selection and in their lives.  She didn’t think anything of her deep involvement in her children’s decisions and the ramifications that would later have.  After all, if someone is THAT involved in making decisions on behalf of her children, how can her children be expected to do things on their own.

While I worked with her, she was constantly receiving texts from her children & responding to them.  She called them often & researched things for them.  So you’d think that someone like that would have a lot of understanding and tolerance for Gen Yers that reported to her.  Not at all.  She constantly complained about how lazy & unmotivated her young staff was.  She was frustrated at how much time she had to “waste” holding their hand through every minor detail of their work.  She was appalled at their work habits but fully expected them to “get with the program” and figure things out themselves.  After all, no one ever showed her how to get things done.  She had to figure it out on her own and so do they.

See the disconnect?  Like my client, many Gen Y parents were and are heavily involved in their children’s lives. But when these parents put on their “leader/manager”  hats at work, they expect Gen Yers to miraculously figure things out on their own.  But how can they when all their lives Gen Yers have had hands-on advisors helping them every step of the way?

Unlike other generations of young workers, Gen Yers have many more employment options than existed in the past.  Many leaders mistakenly believe that with the recession Gen Yers are going to have to conform & “get with the program”.  They may do that temporarily but here’s something you probably don’t know about your Gen Yers that you would if you spent any time trying to get to know them.  Many Gen Yers have side gigs.   I believe Pamela Slim, author of  “Escape from Cubicle Nation” calls them side hustles.  In their spare time, Gen Yers are following their passion, volunteering in non-profits, working part-time at a home-based business.  The more disengaged they are at work, the more effort they’ll put into their side hustles.

They also have options around the companies they work for.  There are many successful companies that have been started by Gen Yers that are attuned to the needs to Gen Yers & are extremely attractive to them. Think Google, Facebook and many in the non-profit world such as Invisible Children.  And we haven’t even talked about the unprecedented access to angel funding & venture capital that is available to someone with an idea, a lot to offer and working for a boss who doesn’t care.

So my advice to leaders out there is this: If you want to attract and keep the best of  Gen Y talent and prepare them to lead effectively in the 21st Century instead of the 20th Century, let go of the status quo and stop holding on until you retire.   We owe it to our children, your young staff to give them the tools they need to be the great leaders of the future.

For a long time, corporate America has cherished its subject matter experts or SMEs as they are known. It takes a lot of experience, hard work and a deep expertise in a particular subject area to become known as an SME and it’s not a title given lightly.  For the most part, however, SMEs are individual people called upon to share their knowledge as needed by their team or their boss. This makes sense as Baby Boomers and Xers have approached work from an individual contributor standpoint.  They have made it a point to develop expertise in their subject areas on their own.  Even as part of a team, SMEs still stand out from the others based on the specific knowledge they know.

As I tried to make sense of Millennials and observed them in their natural work habitat,  it occurred to me that the notion of  an SME as we understood it today may not hold in the future. As most of us know by now, Millennials have grown up in rapidly changing times.  They were also highly connected,  both technologically,  having access to any type of information at their fingertips and collaboratively working on projects with their peers.  They quickly learned at a very young age, that with information changing so quickly, it would always be better to work in groups and tackle a project rather than do so individually.  They became very comfortable and adept at breaking down projects and assigning portions of the projects to members of the group.  Each person would be responsible for their piece but the group would come together to address the specific outcomes the project required.

Now this wasn’t something that they learned in school or from their parents.  Working collaboratively is something Millennials do naturally.  I often think it’s because they grew up having to tackle so many activities that working together with fellow Millennials was the only way they could juggle it all. Even when they were at home, they were still collaborating online and sharing their knowledge with their friends.  They became what I call Collaborative Groups.  As they came together to determine the solution to a problem or a project,  the group as a whole had the expertise more than the individuals.  Although each person had the information he or she was assigned to obtain,  the solution to the problem was determined as a group.

The Millennials bring that way of thinking to the workplace.  They work things out collectively not individually.  Even when you think you are assigning a Millennial a project, you can bet they are asking other Millennials or teamates for input and assistance. It’s important that you not jump to the conclusion that Millennials can’t think or do things on their own.  They can but they prefer not to.  They are wired to understand that in today’s world one person can no longer have a deep expertise in something . It is much more efficient to get the participation of others. This way you are sharing ideas and different perspectives with people  from within your team or preferably, outside the team.

Millennials learned early that diversity of ideas breeds innovation and makes the ultimate solution richer.  You can’t do this as an SME but you can if you are part of a Collaborative Group.

In the future don’t be surprised if SMEs are replaced by Collaborative Groups.  I’ve seen them in action and they are very effective.

Recently I was giving a speech on Millennials to an HR group and when it came time for questions, one of the participants commented that based on what I had presented, she felt that  the Individual Contributor concept was on its last legs.  Individual Contributors are people in organizations who are not part of a team or who work in a team but who have to show results as an individual apart from the team contribution.   I completely agreed with her assessment:  the individual contributor was on its last legs. 

From what I can tell by having closely observed Millennials in a work setting, they rarely work alone.  They are natural collaborators always seeking input, involvement, feedback and knowledge from their peers.  They don’t do it because they feel it’s required; they do it because they work best that way.

In many companies the idea of the Individual Contributor is still part of the merit or bonus compensation model.  As I began to see just how collaborative the Millennials in my team were, I had to find ways to break down that collaboration in order to fit the individual contributor portion of the merit and bonus measure.  It was very difficult to do and created overhead that was just not necessary.

Over the next few years,  as Millennials increase in numbers in the workplace, the collaborative contributions made by teams will either override or outweigh that of the individual.  That’s a good thing because bringing different perspectives together to look at a problem or a challenge increases the spark of innovation that can lead to great ideas.  We need that spark in corporate America, don’t you think?

Why? Understanding the Millennial mindset at the C level is critical to acknowledge and understand how and why this new workforce is so unfamiliar to us.  We have 2 choices:  complain and reject them or connect and capitalize on their talents.

The first choice is easy and many of us are doing that now.  We may feel better when we complain but it doesn’t change anything.  According to demographers,  in less than 5 years, 50% of the workforce will be the very same workforce we are rejecting today.  Smart executives are opting for the second choice.

Connecting with Millennials means we have to let go of the status quo so to speak and get out of our comfort zones.  For us to truly understand them we have to work among them. This is the first step to initiate change in the corporate structure to begin to capitalize on their talents.  We can’t capitalize if we don’t see it in action.  Working comfortably in our offices on the executive floor of our organizations has isolated us from what is happening in the trenches, at the ground level. Occasionally walking around the department or having a working lunch with our team doesn’t give us much insight either. 

It’s when we spend time with our team especially the Millennials that we see the hidden potential they offer and they get to feel comfortable with us and share their ideas.  When I first did this I felt awkward and uncomfortable and almost stopped the effort. But I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and stuck with it just a baby step at a time.  The results were amazing.  It gave me the courage to continue challenging the management principles I had acquired and adapt them for the 21st Century workforce I was leading. 

Today, the number of Millennials in the workplace is small.  They are just gently tapping on our management door and rattling our cage a bit.  In the very near future, they will be a large percentage of our workforce and instead of tapping, they will be knocking the door down.  

Do you want to follow them now or be run over later?

I read this great post by Tammy Erickson in the Harvard Business Review (See link below)  and it got me thinking about the challenges I faced as a corporate executive when I first began dealing with our newest entrants, the Millennials. I thought aliens had finally figured out how to live among us. None of the management tools I had learned over the years were helping me figure them out. 

This is where I learned one of the 10 lessons in managing the new workforce:  let go of the past to innovate for the future.  I had to take what I had learned in the past and reshape it to work in the 21st Century. This did not come easy and required me to experiment and start from scratch in many of my comfort areas.  But I had amazing results.  One of the things I did was to shadow the Millennials.  I sat with them at their desks, I saw how they interacted and the challenges they faced on a daily basis.  I had the rare opportunity to see how differently they work and interact and that opened the door to capitalize on their talents.  I certainly would not have been able to do that sitting at my desk everyday.

Having the opportunity to connect with them and for them to connect with me made a huge difference.  Many of them stayed with us for years.  Who said loyalty is dead?  It’s not dead, it just has to be re-framed for the 21st Century.   But as Tammy says in her blog,  we can do that ” only if we create a new equation, one that is a realistic reflection of today’s environment, one in which we all can trust.”

So what about you?  Are you willing to let go of the past and create a new management equation that will work in the 21st Century?

Here’s Tammy’s blog in the Harvard Business Review.

For years, I’ve heard companies encourage their leaders and staff to “think outside the box”. At first I thought it was a great concept until I wondered if thinking outside one box would truly challenge me and make me innovative or simply put me on the path to creating yet another box.

The notion of stretching beyond our corporate comfort zone is not enough in today’s frenetic world.  It keeps us from experimenting and challenging ourselves to find new ways of leading our teams.   Years ago I started hiring Millennials into my team.  After managing as many people as I had for as long as I had, I developed a series of boxes where I grouped employees based on the behaviors and traits they exhibited.  These boxes made it easier to then determine exactly how I was going to manage them.  

As I dealt with Millennials I was extremely frustrated because they were not fitting neatly into any of these boxes.  No matter how much I stretched my thinking, I was not getting them.  After many failed attempts, I realized that simply stretching outside my box wasn’t working.  I needed to throw it out altogether.  Once I did that things began to change and my journey to understanding and capitalizing on the talents of the Millennials began.

How about you? How comfortable are you throwing out the box instead of  just thinking outside it?