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Alicia Blain

twentysomethings


If my boss tells me, ‘not now’ one more time, I’m going to scream”.  That was Katie, one of the many Gen Yers in my professional circle.  She was frustrated once again by her boss and his inflexibility in trying something new. “He keeps making excuses about our team’s workload, our time constraints, the budget to shut down any ideas we bring to him”. 

I explained to Katie that “not now” was the leadership code word for “that makes me uncomfortable”.   After observing Millennials for so long, I realize that they come to the workplace with a different microchip imbedded in their DNA.  When that microchip gets activated by such things as: presenting a new idea, recommending a new but untried process, collaborating with people outside your team, the seasoned leader or manager gets another sampling of the unfamiliar and they don’t like the feeling. 

The savvy and astute leaders use that sampling either as a way to test the tried and true or to experiment with something new.  They see the opportunity to do things differently that the Gen Yers are bringing to the workplace and they go with it.  Most leaders just say “Not now. We’re too busy, too understaffed, too [fill in the excuse du jour].”  “Not now” lets them hold on to the past. It lets them ensure continuity of the way they’ve always done things, it provides a safe haven from the unfamiliar. 

To a sharp and eager Gen Yer looking for motivation and a way to stand out, “not now” is like taking a dip in freezing cold ocean water in January.  It takes your breath away but not in a good way.  For 20-somethings like Katie, getting told “not now” repeatedly is a let-down and a HUGE motivation killer.  Why should she continue to bring up ideas when all she’ll get is a lame reason designed to uphold the tried and true.  What ultimately happens with that inflexibility in leadership style is that talented people like Katie either leave or stop caring. They stop trying to bring their unique and much needed perspective into the workplace.  Either way, the organization loses out on capitalizing on her talent. It also loses out on getting comfortable with change.  Can any organization today afford that?  Yet, time and time again you can see many bosses across countless organizations emulating Katie’s boss’ behavior. 

My question is:  how long can we allow “not now” to continue? How long until it hurts the team and the organization?  Holding on to what has worked in the past is a recipe for failure if it’s not constantly being tested or reassessed for its value going forward.  Gen Yers have some great ideas to share in the workplace that test the tried and true.  That should be embraced by leaders of forward looking organizations. Some of the ideas may not work but I can guarantee that everyone will learn and be better off by trying them out. 

By leading the Millennials, I learned that “not now” couldn’t hold a candle to “let’s give it a try”. I just had to get comfortable saying it. I realized that “Not now” fed my fear of the unknown while “let’s give it a try” gave me possibilities.  It was also music to the ears of the Millennials in my team.  It gave them hope that things could change and that their input could make a positive difference at work.

So what about you?  Do you catch yourself saying “not now” a lot at work?  Replace it one time with “Ok. Let’s give it a try” and you’ll see that the world does not fall apart.  Maybe you’ll see your Gen Yers light up with hope instead of mope with disappointment.

I think we do and we need to do it fast. In my last blog post I talked about how so many people have been approaching me lately about how unhappy they are in their corporate jobs.  I think the economic woes we’re facing are making people cautious about leaving a steady paycheck but at the same time, it’s highlighting just how pervasive poor leadership is within the corporate ranks.  When times were better, people had more career options and would leave a company when they got tired of its poor leadership. Today, they can’t and it’s putting a spotlight on just how de-moralizing poor leadership can be to a team.

Although leaders know they have the upper hand in this economy, they have to always remember that it won’t be like that forever. If they are lousy bosses, their employees know it and so does everyone else.

It’s not hard to re-imagine leadership so that you have happy employees. Any good leader will tell you that employees don’t want much – they want work that is fulfilling and they want to be respected and acknowledged for their contributions.  That’s it.  The problem is that many of us who have led for a number of years are sticking to some pretty outdated ways of leading that prevent our employees from getting those 2 simple things they want most.

So here are 3 things today’s hip and savvy leaders are doing to re-imagine how they lead in the 21st Century.

  1. They ask for advice.  Savvy leaders know that the days when they had all the answers are long gone.  Today, the employees in the trenches know more about what’s going on than they do.  After all, how current can you be when you’re stuck in meetings all day and most of your job requires you to ensure your team’s compliance with those countless regulations and policies required under HIPAA, SOX, MOUSE (just kidding).  Getting your team involved and listening to their ideas is instrumental for successful leaders in the future.
  2. They are willing to bend the rules. Let’s face it, the only way we are going to shed our old leadership comfort zones are to experiment with new ones. The only way to do that is if we bend the rules of how the game is played.  Now I’m certainly not advocating we go and break corporate rules and get ourselves into trouble.  I’m talking about breaking the rules we’ve used from the past to lead in the future. So for example, just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Just because our best practices don’t align with the new idea being considered doesn’t mean we shouldn’t test the “best” practice to see if                 something better should replace it.  Bend the rules and test the “what-ifs”.  Those  “what-ifs” are the secret to staying viable in the future.
  3. They learn. If you aren’t open to learning new things every day you will not make it as a leader in the 21st Century.  The pace of change is grueling and it’s constantly challenging what we know on any given day.  If you want to sit on your laurels and reap the benefits of the expertise you’ve developed in the past, you will become the poster child for poor leadership.  You need to be in constant learning mode to hold the privilege of leading a team going forward.  By your example, your team will know that they need to stay sharp and keep their skills up to date. And here’s a secret:  you know those pesky 20-somethings that drive you crazy?  They are a GREAT resource for you to keep you learning and to stay relevant with what is happening in the world today.

So how about it? Do you want to just take up space until you reach retirement or do you want to make a difference to the generations of up and coming leaders that are watching you for clues on how to be the best of the best? It’s your choice.  If we are to re-imagine what leadership is going to be in the 21st Century, it starts with us – the leaders that have the courage to be different, be bold and willing to shed the past to make room for the future.

Last week, I had the rare treat of being around NINE 20-somethings for 7 whole days. As many of you know by now, I love watching Gen Yers.In fact, I learned to figure them out by creating a living, breathing lab years ago as I started hiring them. They frustrated me so much that I knew that I either had to figure them out or put in for early retirement. I chose the first option. Putting Gen Yers under the microscrope changed so many things in my life but most especially it changed the way I saw them and the way I led them.

Last week, I had a chance to observe nine of them in a personal setting instead of a professional one. Although I’ve been able to do this in the past, I didn’t have the opportunity to do it for long periods of time like I did last week. Seven glorious days!

So let me give you the quick backstory. My fiance’s mother, June, turned 90 in June. Isn’t it cute that June’s name is her birth month? Anyway, I digress. June’s daughter decided to host a family reunion in August so the entire family could make it. It’s a pretty big family so you can imagine how difficult it was to get busy schedules to align.

What was so amazing is that June’s daughter and her husband PAID for the entire reunion!! And I mean everything from renting the house next door, to stocking refrigerators full of food, to paying for dinners, a suite at a Padres game, tickets to the local outdoor symphony featuring the Beatles and Rolling Stones, to a beautiful sunset birthday dinner at a golf course. It was a magical week full of wonderful memories and all made possible by the generosity of June’s daughter & husband. I know the karma gods will reward them generously for their beautiful and selfless gesture and we are all indebted to them for everything they did.

So, the nine 20-somethings were mostly June’s grandchildren and a couple of their friends. I got to talk to them, observe them, understand what was important to them and just immerse myself in their world. In doing so, I realized that today’s 20-somethings are just like we were at their age – but with a 21st Century twist. I also realized just how much I had forgotten what it was like to be 20-something. Here are the 3 things that stood out:

1. They love having fun. Whether it was playing bananagrams in the dining room table or making signs to take to the Padres game or rocking out to the Beatles & the Rolling Stones at the Pops concert, 20-somethings live their life to the fullest. Seeing their zest for life and the dreams they had for the future, reminded me that I was exactly like them at their age – I had just forgotten.

Here’s the  twist:  At the same time they were playing bananagrams, some of them were playing scrabble on their smartphones with either someone else at the reunion or a friend online.  Before going to the Rolling Stones concert, they went to iTunes to listen to some Stones hits so they would recognize them at the concert.  Remember, the Beatles & Stones aren’t bands they listen to but yet they were totally cool about getting to know them & going to a concert that showcased their songs.  At 20-something, I know I wouldn’t even dream of going with my parents to a supper club to hear Frank Sinatra.  How about you?

2.  They love to Party.   While the boring Boomers would scramble to bed exhausted at 9:00 or 10:00, their evening was just beginning.  They would either congregate in one of the houses or they’d go to a local bar.  Sometimes, I’d hear them getting back at 3 0r 4 in the morning.  It reminded me of how I’d do the same thing in my twenties. But again, going to bed at 10PM makes you forget the days when 10PM meant you were getting ready to go out and party the night away.

Here’s the twist: Unlike their parent’s generation, I found that 20-somethings today are more aware of the hazards of drinking and driving. Instead of putting their lives and those of others at risk, these 20-somethings chose to let someone else do the driving instead. I find that 20-somethings today take cabs after a night of partying rather than get behind a wheel.  For a group that’s considered to be immature and irresponsible, that’s a pretty responsible thing to do and it’s smart too. How many times did you call a cab after a night of partying?

 Through all of their partying, these 20-somethings are connected at all times to their smartphones/cellphones.  They are either letting their friends know where they are, or finding a place to go eat afterwards or taking a picture to put on their facebook page, the technology is always with them and utilized all the time. Boomers will never know what that feels like.  We had to find our way to a payphone and prayed that it worked if we wanted to make a call.

3.  They love their families.  One of my fondest memories of this reunion will be how well all the generations – Veterans, Boomers, Xers, Gen Yers and iGen (yes, there were even children under the age of 11) got along.  There was love and respect even when understanding a certain way of thinking was difficult.  After all, what someone in their 90s thinks is important is very different than what a 20-something thinks it is. I loved how everyone laughed and interacted with one another and the genuine interest the 20-somethings had in the stories told by the older generations.  I thought back to the family reunions I attended in my twenties and how despite our differences, I respected and loved my family.  I still remember the wonderful family stories that were told that I still remember today.   I had just forgotten where I first heard them.

Here’s the twist:  20-somethings today really like to hang out with their parents.  They didn’t congregate in a group removed from the older folks, they got right into the conversation and the action.  In  my twenties, I distinctly remember how the younger group would separate themselves from the older folks and hang out separately.  Not so today.  Here’s an even bigger shocker – these 20-somethings didn’t even mind if their parents hung out with them at the bar or late into the night.  That NEVER happened when I was in my twenties.  Parents were simply not allowed into our space.  Not so with this crop of 20-somethings.  They include everyone… at least to a certain point.

It seems like every day I read or hear someone highlighting how different or strange these 20-somethings are.  After spending seven fun-filled days with nine of them, I can tell you they are more like us than we give them credit for.  It’s just very hard to think back to the days we were their age.  Also, they have their own unique twist that makes them unfamiliar – but not different.  From the generation that lived the  sex, drugs & rock n’ roll mantra, imagine how frightening we must have been for our very proper and “square” parents?

I think that if we start from a place of acceptance and commonality, the differences among us aren’t so stark. They add flavor to the rich fabric of our personal and professional lives.  And we are all the more blessed because of it.

To all the 20-somethings out there – You ROCK!!

I want to first start out by thanking my colleague, Susan Whitcomb, a wonderful career coach and President of the Career Coach Academy for sending me this article in the Business Insider written by Vivian Giang titled:  ”If You Want to Retain The Best Young Workers, Give Them A Mentor Instead of Cash Bonuses“.  According to the article, in a recent annual Global CEO Survey  conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 20-somethings, also known as Gen Y/Millennials rated training and development way above cash bonuses as their first choice in benefits.

The research that I did this past year validated the results from the survey.  As I interviewed 20-somethings that had been working from one to five years, over 80% had either left a job or were aggressively looking for one.  Why?  All of them were shocked by the reality they faced when they started working.  None of them were prepared for it and all of them wished they had known ahead of time so that perhaps they would have asked better questions during the interview to determine if there was a good fit. But even if they still had to take a job regardless of fit, they all felt that knowing would have helped with a better transition.

What was shock #1 for these Gen Yers?  Having to report to bad bosses and/or not having mentors they could go to.  In my new e-book, New @ Work:  An Insider’s Survival Guide to a Crazy Workplace,  I give new hires some probing questions to ask during an interview so they can determine if their prospective employer embraces mentoring and whether or not their next boss has “horrible boss” characteristics.

In my experience having worked as a corporate executive for over 25 years,  I find that new hires don’t take enough advantage of the interview process.  The interview provides a great opportunity to get to know important things about the organization and the person who will be your boss.  Too often, young interviewees are so concerned about making a good impression that they either don’t ask a lot of questions or ask very predictable ones. 

Interviewers have typically been through hundreds of interviews and usually have heard the same questions being asked over and over again.  A way to stand out is to ask them questions that make them think, that get them out of their comfort zone.  As long as you ask it in a non-threatening manner and from a place of curiosity, the interviewer will most likely remember you from the countless other interviews he or she has had.  In today’s world, young interviewees need to find creative ways to get on the employers radar preferably before the interview but certainly during the interview.

As I was reading the Insider Edition article, I was noticing some of the comments that were  posted.  Many of them appeared to be from Gen Yers who disagreed with the survey results and rated cash bonuses over mentoring.  Although this is understandable in today’s unstable economic times, I believe it ultimately backfires.  It’s a case of being penny wise and pound foolish.

Having had mentors and being a mentor during my long career, I can attest to the huge benefits mentors provide.  They are able to fastrack your career.  They show you where the landmines are located, what to do and not do and how best to stand out and get noticed.  Mentors provide a shortcut to becoming successful at work.  Although that may not be as appealing as a cash bonus in the short term, I can vouch that it has much better financial benefits in the long term. 

Mentoring has allowed me to make strategic moves in my career that have ultimately gotten me  higher increases,  better bonuses and more importantly, positioned me to become a high performer which is the cream of the talent crop in an organization. Cash bonuses could not have done that and eventually, those bonuses would probably shrink without a “Success GPS”  that only a mentor can provide.

In my e-book I give some advice on how to find mentors in or outside an organization if someone finds him or herself working for a bad boss or an organization that doesn’t foster mentoring.  Mentoring is that important to your career whether you are 20-something or 50-something.

When you have a good mentor, the cash will come.  Without one, it’s a rocky road.

In today’s USA Today, an article titled:  College offers scholarship for Twitter ‘essay’   written by Luke Kerr-Dineen and Natalie DiBlasio caught my attention.  The University of Iowa held a contest worth $37,000 – the price of a full scholarship to their business school – for prospective students to submit a Twitter entry in place of a second essay.  That means that students would have to get pretty creative with 140 words in order to win the contest.

I thought that was a great example of the type of experimentation that is needed today in both universities and corporations.  As usual, the article highlighted the voice of some detractors that were not in agreement with the experiment.  I find that to be the typical reaction that plagues the leadership in many organizations today.  It’s the need to hold on to the “tried and true” instead of the “trial and error”.

Is it just me or does anyone else question  the intensive focus that is placed on the essay part of the college/MBA applicaiton process by most parents today.  Every one of my Boomer friends who has had a child apply for college has been intimately involved in the application process. Some of them more so than their children. Some have hired professional writers and editors to “review” (read redo) the essays their children prepare.  Most have spent countless hours perfecting the essays.  As Jodi Schafer, the University of Iowa’s director of MBA admission says, this intense focus on the essays has made them “unoriginal and often highly edited”.  I couldn’t agree more.

Doing something creative like the University of Iowa’s MBA program  is doing has 2 advantages:

  1. It gets people comfortable with trial and error.  The University of Iowa had no idea whether this experiment would work or not but you can be assured that going through it will give them a ton of ideas and ways to perfect it the next time or do something different.  They didn’t let the risk of failure stop them.  More universities and companies need to adopt that way of thinking if innovation is going to thrive in the future.
  2. It utilizes 21st Century tools.  Instead of relying on contest tools that were used in the past, the University decided to use the twentysomethings tool of choice to challenge them. After all, these are the tools this generation is comfortable with and will undoubtedly keep using as they get older.  As organizations bring in twentysomethings and begin to tackle the challenge of grooming them to be 21st Century leaders, they will need to get creative in how to employ these tools.  Shutting them down and prohibiting their use may not be the optimum reaction to effectively embracing innovation in the form of new tools.

It’s refreshing to read about how some universities are finding creative ways to deal with the challenge of adapting to the 21st Century.   The article highlighted other creative ways organizations are using social media in contests to help students find funding alternatives for college. It’s a win-win for both the students and the organizations that choose the scary path of experimentation.

What about you?  What new ideas are you trying in the workplace today?  Are you holding on to the tried and true or venturing into the trial and error?  Take a page from the University of Iowa: don’t just think outside the box.  Throw it out and see what new idea takes its place.