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Alicia Blain

Multi-Cultural Workplace


In my blogs I always try to highlight great examples of Millennials doing good & being Millennials.  Last week, I came across a blog on Fast Company written by Simon Mainwaring titled:  “Using Social Media to Mobilize Millennials“.  In the blog, Simon talks about two projects that take a unique & highly Millennial spin on an existing practice.  That practice is social causes & our need as humans to give back and help others less fortunate.

The names of the 2 projects are Pando Projects & Loudsauce.  The first puts the Millennial brainpower to help young people that have an idea for a business but need help putting the business plan together.   Each project gets a website, promotional fundraising & volunteer management tools to kickstart the project.  The project is still a pilot but it shows the power of social media as people support projects based on the personal tie they have with that particular cause.  If you look at the 15 pilot projects, it clearly shows the interest that Gen Y has for causes and making the world a better place.  I particularly loved the projects that also had a multi-cultural component to them as it shows how the future of the US will be more ethnically and racially diverse than ever before.

The second project shows the incredible market savviness that Millennials possess.  Loudsauce lists a series of campaigns for causes & based on your preference you donate money to fund advertising for that cause on TV or billboards & then you spread the word using social media such as Facebook & Twitter.

What struck me in both examples is the creativity they display by leveraging 2 of the 5 unique skills & traits that Millennials bring to any situation.  The 2 skills are their collaboration or crowd sourcing approach to things & their use of technology. I believe Millennials are extremely lucky to be living in a time where technology provides access to so much that was not available in just a few years past.  The way they use technology & harness it is unique to them & extremely powerful.  On top of that, Millennials are natural collaborators.  I’ve shown many examples in my blogs of Millennials coming together to get things done.  They are wired to do it &  because it’s natural to them, they harness that collectivity in ways prior generations can’t begin to fathom.   

I agree with Simon on his take of the future. The unique skills of the  Millennials layered on top of their affinity to get involved in social causes, layered on top of the technology available to help them do that will make them the  ”founders of companies and industry leaders that will transform the products, services and role of brands in near future”.

But where will that leave corporations?  For the first time, we have a generation of smart, collaborative young people who, at an age where other generations were forced to look for corporate jobs to get experience, have an option to start their own companies & use the collective brainpower of their peers to help them succeed.  As corporate leaders continue to rely on outdated principles & techniques that hinder their ability to see the goldmine in their Gen Y staff,  they may decide to opt out of corporate and start their own companies. 

They have the  technology, the social media & the brainpower of their fellow Gen Yers to provide them with the acumen & funding they need to start & grow their own businesses.  That combination has never been available to other generations.  Can corporations compete against that especially as so many Millennials are getting disillusioned by corporate & its leaders on a daily basis?  What kind of talent will be available to corporations?  Will the best Gen Y talent be willing to put up with all the hassles of corporate or decide to try their luck & start their own companies & bring on other bright & motivated Millennials?Will corporate be left with a mediocre talent pool going forward or will they be able to attract, retain & leverage the best of Gen Y?

Interesting questions that will be addressed at time goes on.  If you want to be that corporate leader that can attract & retain top talent, you better start now  First step, let go of the status quo, of your comfort zone & get uncomfortable.  Let go of outdated styles & techniques that blind you to the potential that Millennials bring.  Ignite experimentation in your group & make that connection with your young workforce.    That will give you a good head start.  Remember leading successfully in the 21st Century requires leaders to C.A.R.E. – Connect, Adapt, Reshape & Experiment to keep the best talent engaged & commited. 

Are you doing that today?

I came across this article titled Managing the Millennials  in the WebCPA website. The article was written by Stacey Randall.  It references a study conducted by SBR Consulting last year.  The study interviewed 167 laid off Millennials and 55% of them said they would either probably not or definitely not work in corporate America in the long term which in the study was defined as over 5 years.  The article focuses on the ramifications that statistic would have for the Accounting industry and offers some great suggestions on how to ensure a good succession plan and avoid a serious talent gap.

As I was reading that statistic it reminded me of a conversation I had with 3 Millennials on my recent trip to California.   I was attending a conference there and at lunch I escaped the cold air conditioning of the meeting room by taking my lunch and eating by the pool in the warm sun.  In the table next to mine, I could hear these 3 twenty-somethings talking and laughing.  As I began to eavesdrop (can’t help myself)  I could tell that they were talking about their jobs.  Apparently, they all had corporate jobs and 2 of them had just gotten laid off in the past few months. 

From the tone of their conversation, it was clear they were not happy working in corporate.  So I knew I had to jump in and ask them why.  I introduced myself and told them what I did and as typical Millennials, they welcomed me into their group and proceeded to ask me a million questions about why corporate was the way it was.  They clearly were that frustrated.  As I tried answering their questions, I tried asking some of my own.   Their responses were revealing. Here were my 3 takeaways:

  1. Corporate was a stepping stone but not the end game.  All 3 Millennials understood that having corporate experience served to enhance their resume.  They acknowledged that navigating and being comfortable with the corporate structure and its lingo were important things to get under their belt.  But they were also adamant about the fact that they were not prepared to be “corporate slaves”.  As they saw it, the corporation of today did not offer a lot of chances for young people to demonstrate or develop their talent.  The three Millennials had worked or were working in Fortune 500 companies.  They felt disconnected from their bosses and encumbered by rules & controls.  Innovation & creativity were stifled at every turn by bureaucracy & red tape.  In the long term, they felt they would “lose their soul” if they stayed in corporate. That is why the 2 that had been laid off saw it as a blessing instead of a curse.
  2. Millennial Wanderlust.  One of the three Millennials was Asian and another was Brazilian.  Both the Asian & Brazilian talked about taking the knowledge they had learned in corporate and moving to another country to apply what they learned.  When I asked whether they wanted to do that as an employee or an entrepreneur, they both thought they would want to become entrepreneurs.  They felt that both their education and corporate experience would be well received and sought after in other emerging countries like China or Brazil . One of the Millennials talked about working for a non-profit in an emerging country.  As minorities become a majority in the US, this willingness to move to other countries can also put pressure on the talent gap that was highlighted in the survey last year.
  3. Social Media as the Great Enabler.  All 3 Millennials talked about developing an idea, solving a problem or creating opportunities for something new.  Although I don’t think they were aware of it, social media was at the heart of the discussion. No matter what they were creating or where they lived or worked, they talked about connecting with others,  spreading the word and creating a community.  When I highlighted that to them, they looked at me strangely as if to say “Duh, of course”. It never occurred to them that this was something uniquely Millennial.  No other generation had grown up with that much access to harness the collective as they did.

As I read the article in WebCPA and remembered the conversation with my 3 Millennial friends, I could see the possibility of that statistic becoming a reality and it gave me pause.  If 55% of Millennials opted out of corporate sometime in the early part of their careers, where would the future talent come from? What would that do to succession planning? How were corporations going to stay innovative in such a competitive global world if the talent to do so was not there?

My 3 Millennial amigos showed me they weren’t willing to follow the status quo.  They would prefer to redefine their careers than become “corporate slaves”.  As leaders, do we have the courage to redefine what doesn’t work in corporate to keep and engage this generation and all the others that follow?

My assistant, Espy, was in her late twenties when she began to work for me years ago.  She was a Generation Xer “Hispanic-American” and had come to this country in her late teens.  She spoke English & Spanish fluently and had assimilated well into the American culture.   As I first began my Millennial lab experiment in the office, I did a lot of  generational research and read many of the books written by the leading  generational experts.  I would often document and reference some of the key research and my assistant would help me organize the material.  After she helped me, I’d notice that Espy would have a perplexed frown on her face with the information I was finding. 

So one day I asked her why she always had a perplexed look on her face when she was organizing the generational data.  Her response was surprising.  I can’t remember everything she said but her last comment stayed with me.   She said “It doesn’t depict who I am”. Her comment intrigued me so I asked her to elaborate.  The bottom line was that she related better to the traits and values of  Baby Boomers & Veterans than of Generation Xers and the reasons why became evident as she explained.  Espy spent most of her childhood in Nicaragua.  None of the current events that shaped Generation X in the US were relatable to her since they were US centric.  She was influenced by a completely different set of events – those specific to Nicaragua when she was a young girl. 

Those current events she experienced in Nicaragua gave her a set of traits & values that didn’t line up with those of  Generation Xers in the US. The traits & characteristics generally associated with Generation X in the US - self-reliance, latch key kids, children of divorce, a bit cynical, tech savvy – did not describe Espy.  The traits that did were honor, hard work, optimism, paying one’s dues, respecting authority.  These traits are a combination of those we use in the US to describe Veterans and Baby Boomers.

Interestingly enough, Espy’s cousin who had come to the US earlier - when she was 4 years old, related not only to the current events but to the traits that define Generation X in the US.  Also, the fact that Espy grew up in Nicaragua gave her a different frame of reference than someone who may have grown up in Colombia or India or Singapore during those same years. 

That conversation with Espy was powerful because it made me realize that I could not rely on just the general distinctions made about the generations but rather that I had to incorporate an ethnic and racial layer to truly represent all members of my team. As I said in my last post, typically this ethno-racial layer is omitted from generational studies and discussions. It is assumed that all people that fall in one of the four generational categories have had the same general experiences growing up that led to the traits they exhibit. Although I understand the basis of that assumption, Espy proved that it does not work in all cases.    

As I read the statistics that show that the US will increasingly become a minority majority, I wondered just how much of the workforce could relate to Espy’s generational dilemma?  Just what percentage of Millennials entering the workforce would be part of the minority majority and would ethnicity and race become a bigger component of the generational conversation than it had in the past.  Since my team was 90% Multi-Cultura, l I realized I had another rare opportunity to answer those questions. My experiments in this area were enlightening and I will share the results with you from time to time.

So if you’re wondering why a certain Millennial or Xer on your team is not displaying the general characteristics of her generation, you now have a clue as to why that is. The more we as  leaders understand our staff and what makes them tick, what motivates them and inspires them, the better able we will be to effectively lead them and harness their potential.  That has always been such a fulfilling part of my job.  In the 21st Century, the “one size fits all” style of leadership doesn’t work well.  The more customized the approach, the more connected you will be to your team and the more they will connect with you.

I’ve said many times that those of us in leadership positions today are part of a leadership renaissance. We have been given the difficult yet exciting task to architect a new 21st Century model for leadership. There are no blueprints, no best practices on which to build this new structure.  The only tools we have are uncertainty, an unrelenting pace for change and an outdated and tattered 20th Century blueprint that worked in the past but no longer serves today’s corporate ecosystem.    It will be up to us to create the bridge between what worked in the 20th Century and what needs to be in place for leadership and organizations  to thrive in the 21st Century.  No one has the answers but we will certainly fail if we don’t at least attempt to challenge the status quo. It’s not enough to think outside the box.  We have to just throw the darn thing out. 

So here’s another first we will be facing in the 21st Century. For the first time in history, 21st Century leaders will be in charge of a workforce that is far from homogeneous. As we approach the middle half of the century, the minority in the US will become a majority.  Now, you may think that 2050 is a long way away and that you won’t be leading teams by then.  Well, think again and look around you.   

Ethnicity and race  are big pieces of the diversity puzzle that exists in organizations today and it’s getting bigger everyday.  Whether it’s in the employees you are hiring, the outsourced vendors you are using in Argentina, Russia or India or in your global customer base, the more we understand and are fluent in the differences and nuances that make up the multi-cultural world we work in, the more effective leaders we will be going forward.

Diversity, in all its many facets, has always been the domain of the Human Resources Department for as long as I can remember. I think there isn’t an organization out there today that has not received diversity training.  Yet, attending a training class on diversity is very different than actually leading a heavily multi-cultural team.   I know there are still sections and areas of the US where the majority of workers are still non-hyphenated Americans.  What I mean by that is that they are predominantly white employees whose European ancestors came to this country generations, if not centuries, ago.  There is no descriptive term before the word “American” to explain their heritage.

Then there are other parts of the country that are just the opposite.  They are the real melting pots where ethnicity, race and even religion come together every day and must learn not only to understand each other’s customs but accept them and work side by side with them.  Here, these Americans are given a descriptive  hyphenated word whether they want it or not.  Words like Asian-American,  Hispanic-American, African-American.

Having lived in New York City from a very young age, I thought I was pretty savvy about ethnic and racial distinctions but  years ago, when I moved to South Florida,  I realized there was a lot I needed to learn.  South Florida is a real melting pot in many different way.  There is a large Hispanic and African American and Jewish population and equally important, it also serves as a large hub for recent immigrants that are not only Hispanics but Russians, Haitians  and many others. And yes, you also have the “Gringos” as they are called which are the good, old fashioned “white” folks.

Although I’ve always managed teams that were multi-cultural, in South Florida, my team was 90% multi-cultural. At first, I never really paid that much attention to that statistic but with time,  I got to realize how important that statistic was.  Just like with the Millennials, I realized I had a sneak preview to what the workforce was going to be like in the future.  Just as I experimented with techniques to understand and harness the potential of the Millennials so too did I do that with the multi-cultural component of my team.  My experiments were eye-opening and in future blogs  I will share what I learned and the techniques I developed to leverage the culturally unique qualities of  my team members. 

As a leaders in the 21st Century, we have to understand the different traits and values that each generation brings to the workforce. More importantly, we have to understand that within each generation is a multi-cultural and racial component that may overrride the more encompassing generational ones we’ve come to know.   Most of us have not considered that nuance but the reality is that the ethnic & racial components of the workforce will significantly play into the generational traits and values they bring into the workplace.

So here’s the first thing I learned: the hyphenated term means nothing and only creates confusion.  In other words, “Hispanic-American” does not tell you anything about the person in your team who you may consider to be “Hispanic-American”.   All it does is muddy the waters. The generalization often gets in the way of truly understanding what makes that particular person tick.

In my next blog, I’ll tell you how I learned that important distinction.

What about you?  Are you ready to lead a minority majority?  Do you understand the cultural nuances of your team members?  Do you know how to even start?