Younger workers – the so-called Millenials or those born after 1982 - with all of their creative talent and intellectual savvy, and all of their flightiness and senses of entitlement - offer unique challenges and opportunities for 21st Century managers seeking to build well-functioning teams that work and win together.
Here are five best practices:
#5. Understand that Entrepreneurship and Youth Go Hand-in-Hand. Most ambitious young people today don’t grow up dreaming about getting that “good state job” or to work for the same company for 30 years.
Rather, and following up on that overriding sense of “specialness” with which we now raise our children, young people want their star to shine. They want to come up with the new, great ideas, and to be acknowledged and rewarded for it.
They, in essence, want all of the recognition and empowerment and self-definition and financial opportunity that attract people of all ages to become entrepreneurs.
This is a great and good thing, and is at the heart of why we live in a golden, global age as young people the world over are being raised with the right kind of high self-esteems to dream and act BIG.
BUT, and it is a big but, many of even the best of them on balance do not want the headaches and heartaches and vexing, painful choices and compromises that are just as much part and parcel of the real entrepreneurial “lifestyle.”
So how do you work with this? The deep desire and burning ambition that all companies desperately want in their people on the one hand, and a wariness and even a distaste for all of the prosaic, “not fun” stuff on the other?
Well surprise, surprise, this is tough. A general rule here is as opposed to fighting this energy, go with it and reframe the “tough stuff” as opportunities for personal and professional growth and then profusely recognize and acknowledge when the younger worker takes on these “less fun” challenges. Not easy to do for sure, but it is this leadership that both modern organizations and younger workers desperately need and want.
#4. Revel in the Importance of Corporate Culture. In a world where everything can and is easily and quickly borrowed, copied, and sometimes just plain old stolen - the only sustainable competitive advantage is how a company organizes and aligns, inspires and challenges its people.
Or, in a word, its corporate culture.
Taking it further, the modern manager is doubly vexed by the unsettling (yet exciting) reality that the plan today will almost certainly not be the plan tomorrow, and as the plan changes, so must change both individual roles and team dynamics. And thereby so must the culture change.
Please let’s not jump over this point too quickly. It is all too easy for the ambitious, hard-working, and often older manager to just throw up his or her hands and lament over “these kids” and “how if they only knew how things were like when I was starting out” that they would think and act differently. And how they should be just happy to have a job and not just be so – well young and self-absorbed.
Well, that is dead-end talk. Building high-performing 21st century teams requires winning hearts and minds and doing so each day anew. The best managers REVEL in this challenge as opposed to shirking from it or whining about it.
#3. Empowering and Coddling are NOT The Same Thing. Some may read the above and shake their heads and think that this is a “coddling mindset” or entitlement culture and is exactly what has gotten America in trouble in the first place and a big part of why China is kicking our you know what every which way.
There is some truth to this in regards to work ethic, and the willingness of the younger American worker to truly sacrifice themselves for their work as is more stereotypical in Asian work cultures.
This is where leadership and administrative creativity are of such importance in building win-win work structures that both inspire and challenge the younger worker to work harder and get better faster.
AND allow for balance and acknowledge those aspects of work that are not so “goal-driven.”
What are these? Well, that sense of community and common cause and healthy friendship and competition that make the best workplaces, for lack of a better word, fun.
And fun, as high-performing cultures like Southwest and Richard Branson’s Virgin have demonstrated so inspirationally is - surprise, surprise - very good for the bottom line.
#2. Recognition is Key. Having 2 young sons – ages 3 and 4 – has helped me immeasurably in understanding the sometimes gentle psyches of younger workers. Long gone are those days of fear and punishment-based parenting and schooling. Rather, understanding that a recognition -based milieu is how most high-performing young people have been raised and schooled is a key to effective organization-building.
Authors Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick in their books and on their great website – Carrots.com  - describe recognition done right as being “positive, immediate, close, specific, and shared:”
Positive - managers sometimes use a recognition presentation as a time to talk about how far someone has come, or how they could have done even better. This is not the time or place. Comments must be positive and upbeat.
Immediate - too often by the time an employee is recognized for a job well done, weeks if not months have passed. Obviously the closer the recognition to the actual performance the better.
Close - recognition is best presented in the employee’s work environment among peers. Invite the person’s team members and work friends to attend.
Specific - a great presentation is a time to point out specific behaviors that reinforces key values.
Shared - typically, recognition comes from the top down; however, recognition that means the most often comes from peers who best understand the circumstances surrounding the employee’s performance. Peers, as well as managers and supervisors, should be able to comment during the presentation.
#1. Build Processes as Much as People. This is perhaps the hardest reality and where the rubber really hits the road with building 21st century, knowledge-based entrepreneurial organizations dependent on younger people.
They just get up and leave.
On a moment’s notice and often for the simple and defensible reason of valuing experience and variety over the often hum-drum and slow career – building that is part of staying and growing with one organization over time.
Again, as opposed to fighting this energy, go with it. Work to design the organization and refine the business model based on relatively short tenures – say 3 years or less - and with the ability to plug new people in and have them produce quickly.
To accomplish this requires strong and well-defined training styles and processes, clearly defined and “bounded” roles and responsibilities, and a knowledge management system that captures and processes the intelligence of the organization so that it doesn’t walk out the door when that “year overseas” calls.
Again not easy, especially for those 70% of U.S. businesses that are service-based, but it is another one of those either accept how things are now or perish-type realities.
How About Investors?
As for investors looking for emerging companies to back, my strong suggestion is to evaluate these softer “above the line” qualities in a corporate culture and a leadership team as much as the below line technology and balance sheet factors that are usually at the forefront of an investment evaluation.
For it is the right culture – that gets the best out of people of all ages - that both endures and provides for success for the long term.
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