As each generation enters the workforce, companies face a new set of unique challenges.  How does management, from one generation, adjust their style to a new and dynamic group of young people?  It seems that Boomers figured out how to manage Generation X and now the Millennials have arrived.  So, who are these mysterious people?  How do we attract them to our companies?  And, most important, once we find the ones we want, how do we keep them?

This new workforce, the oldest of whom are now in their 30s, is the first generation to have been raised by “helicopter parents” who were busy whisking them off after school to soccer and judo and swim meets and theater groups.  Unlike previous generations, who spent their free time biking around the neighborhood or exploring the world unsupervised, Millennials grew up achieving things; be it high scores on video games or various trophies, their childhoods were goal-directed.

As a result, Millennials are far more confident than previous generations.  They have been taught and they expect  they can succeed at whatever they take on.  More to the point, they believe that on-going success is their right.  In their goal-oriented thinking, they are always asking themselves, “what is this company doing to forward my career goals?”  Does this mean they are selfish and unconcerned with company needs?  No, just the opposite, in fact.  They are always looking for the next high-score and, if you give them the room to do it, they will do all that growing and achieving to the benefit of your company.

Where management stumbles, though, is in trying too hard to direct that growth.  Millennials want to be the drivers of their careers and they are always on the move.  This is the challenge for companies today.  Talented Millennials are so clear that they can go elsewhere if they aren’t getting what they need from you that it creates a particular challenge for a company.  Many managers are used to backseat driving their employee’s careers but that will only frustrate Millennials.  However, that does not mean get out of the car.  Rather, it means you have to be a more creative and nuanced manager; you must be the copilot that discusses destinations and offers alternative routes for the driver to choose from.  With Millennials, creative and collaborative management is the key.

So, what does that look like?  Management of this group is not without its own roadmap.  Certain skills are well-tested and proven to be successful.  Here are 5 key points to consider:

1.    Listen, listen, listen!  I know we have all been told this before but there is no single more important thing you can do for your employees.  As Richard Branson put it, “we have two ears and one mouth, using them in proportion is not a bad idea!”  And don’t just expect your frontline manager to listen to your employees. This has to occur on every level of the company.  From the C-Suite to the work teams in the trenches, companies that foster a culture of listening also foster innovation and emotional investment.  This simple skill is the basis for every skill that comes next.

2.      Value their values.  This evolves naturally out of really listening to your employees.  As you grow to understand what their vision is for themselves within your company, you are better equipped to figure out how to align their needs with your own and alignment of your needs with your employees’ needs is the key to long-term success.  As with all employees, your Millennials need regular praise when they do well; this feeds their value for contribution and respect.

Millennials tend to also desire constant room for growth: “what new skill can I learn and master?”  “What’s the next responsibility I can take on?”  Be very aware of how they want to grow (ie the direction they want to drive their career) and be sure to give them that opportunity.  If you don’t, they’ll go somewhere that does.  Millennials are not afraid to use job-hopping as a promotion strategy.

Another key value to Millennials that is closely tied to growth is creativity.  The companies that succeed most with younger people are those that give them room to stretch beyond the box.  In his book, “Drive,” Daniel Pink mentions a company that gave all of its employees a full day per quarter when they could work on anything they wanted with whomever they wanted.  The results were innovations the company would have never considered.  Good managers think outside the box to find ways to help their employees get out of the box as often as possible.

3.      Value YOUR values.  Millennials are less cynical than Xers are and, as a result, are less accepting of hypocrisy.  They don’t roll their eyes and think, “of course, I should have known they would do that.”  They get offended.  They want to know that you are genuine, that you mean what you say and that you will follow through on your promises.  That means you the manager and you the company.  Millennials like to align themselves with companies whose values closely match their own.  Unlike those who entered the work force in the “greed is good” 80s, Millennials are very concerned with the environmental, social and cultural impact of the places they work.  If they work for you because they value your values, then they expect those values to be reflected in their day to day work space.

4.      Foster connectedness.  In a 2010 survey done by the online hiring site, Simply Hired, more than 80% of those polled said they’d rather have a job they love than one that pays well. Does that mean that Millennials don’t care about pay and compensation?  Of course not.  If you cannot reward them competitively, they will go elsewhere and quickly.  However, in this marketplace that is rapidly heating up, good pay is not enough and it is not as important as good friends.  Smart management finds ways to encourage co-workers to interact socially, perhaps by bringing different departments together for team building, perhaps through regular office parties, perhaps by offering onsite lunches, yoga classes or other recreational activities.  Perhaps, simply by having a liberal view of small talk between cubicles.  An employee who feels that their values align with their company’s and who feels connected to other employees and bosses with similar values is  a stable employee; they would likely put up with a lot to keep that connection.

5.      Remove the weak link.  Lastly, once you have developed this sort of thriving and healthy culture in your company, you have to be vigilant to maintain it; it takes only one bad manager to undo all of your hard work.  A Gallup poll of more than 1 million American employees stated that the # 1 reason people quit their jobs is a bad supervisor.  You can listen all you want.  You can walk the walk and talk the talk and truly value your employees’ career goals and development.  But, if a direct supervisor is rigid, distant, punitive or micromanaging, then you could lose some of your best talent, despite all your efforts.  And you don’t just risk losing the disenfranchised employee; according to a 2013 article in US News & World Report, one study found that co-workers of the victims of abusive bosses experience something called “vicarious supervisory abuse” that was equally as traumatic for them.  Weak links in your management chain can effectively drain away your best talent.  Part of listen, listen, listen! means listening for where those weak links might be.  Take those concerns seriously and address them quickly.

The challenge of effective management in today’s world is to learn how to work with the unique needs of every generation in the workforce.  As people live longer and stay working longer, we can expect this challenge to only increase.  Millennials may seem baffling and frustrating at times, particularly for their fluid views of their careers, their lack of long-term company loyalty and their focus on balance and flexibility in the workplace.  However, nobody is better equipped to take your company into the future then they are.

Perhaps what this new generation needs is a form of helicopter management, where insightful and engaged managers offer a variety of ways an employee can further their career and tap into their own core values.  Instead of shuttling kids between new and exciting after-school activities, a helicopter manager would be grooming employees for new and exciting opportunities within a company that values their drive for growth, connectedness and balance as much as they do.

Judo, anyone?



This article by Pete Small was published in The Skyline Group’s C4X Newsletter, May 2013 edition