Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Ververs - Generation Y: Enabling Autostart

By Carl Ververs - 8 October 2008

A pack of Millennials sit in a conference room. The phone rings. Says one to the next: “Dude, you gonna get that?”, Says the other: “Like, Yah! And get, like reprimanded, or something!”. Five minutes later their manager storms in, yelling: “Why aren’t you picking up the phone??!?! I was wondering where you were!” Says one in reply: “We didn’t know we were supposed to!”

This would be cute if it were just a joke. But this is the life of managers of Millennials.

When compared to previous generations, Generation-Y comes off as a bunch of lazy, indecisive airheads. But there is more to it than that. And after a bit of closer examination, you will find that the Gen-Y attitude has some real advantages.

Millennials didn’t jump on their Facebooks and collectively decide to give every prior generation a hard time. Their work attitudes have a clear origin: the overzealous, results-driven approach to child rearing that their parents have practiced. Like many things in their lives, Late Boomers and Gen-X couldn’t just enjoy their children, they were to be made projects, with a results baseline and earned-value metrics. Consider a recent remark overheard from a mother of a 5-year old: “Jason still can’t write a full sentence. I’m considering occupational therapy.”

The cause for excessive parent involvement may be rooted in their investment approach to raising their children. In a Chicago Tribune article from September 9th, 2008, a helicopter parent justifies her behavior by saying that she feels parents must stay involved in their children’s life in college to make the $200K investment worthwhile. This cynical perspective will not be lost on the “assets” and will no doubt make them feel reduced to Boomer accessories (that is, if the dual-career-hound, passed-off-to-sitters pattern hasn’t done so already). There is, not surprisingly, an entrenched defense for helicopter parenting, as a CPA article from September 2006 shows.

As involved and engaged as these parents have been with their offspring, they have missed something crucial: their children can actually think for themselves and have drawn the conclusion that, like all generations before them, their parents are wrong. They have revolted against the workaholic, asset-oholic, keeping-up-with-the-Gateses attitude and are simply rejecting the now-bankrupt notion that personal success is measured by how much stuff one has. "Turn on, tune in, drop out" has been replaced with "iTune in, Log on, Check out your friends’ Twitter updates."

Millennials demand a better work/life balance. There are several advantages to this. For starters, they are less likely to burn out. They have to be very efficient to complete the work assigned to them. They tend to get auxiliary work input from multiple communications channels. Rather than working long hours, they challenge the status quo, demanding (as they should) solutions to lingering problems that create the need for excessive work hours.

However, an inflexible attitude to working late can make them unreliable in crisis situations. Evening and weekend work is sometimes necessary. A Gen-Y person in a key role unwilling to put in the effort when it is needed most can mean that deadline-driven work languishes and projects are delayed. Striking a compromise is difficult. A developer on one of my teams had no higher priority than running. He was consistently late with his work, which was often also incomplete. We agreed to small, very concrete deliverables. While they were completed properly, the experience left me feeling like I was micromanaging and impeding his growth.

While Millennials want to have a life, they also want to have a meaningful job. They want their ideas to be heard and their opinions to count. The upshot of this is that bright minds will not go to waste. Staff can be motivated by big ideas and by seeing clearly how they contribute to revenue. But youthful enthusiasm often gets dismissed as daydreaming, discredentializing fresh insights. Millennials must be taught that most people don’t “get” new ideas at first. Promoting and realizing them requires discipline and tenacity.

A bigger problem is the sense of entitlement Gen-Y, and to a greater extent Gen-I, feels. They expect everything to be on-demand and immediate. If something requires application, study and practice, it’s dismissed, considered to be not worth the effort. This puts Gen-Y at a disadvantage with people from other cultures who have not followed the Western patterns of generations. In the West, the mantra is "work smarter, not harder." But some skills cannot be obtained without actual practice. And without practice, one has to work harder to obtain a similar result as a skilled worker. To make things worse, the stimulus for Millennials, and Generation-I to try harder is muted by being told that “everyone is special”. In the infamous words of Dash Parr: “If everybody’s special, nobody is.” See also the Cerebral Dad’s point of view on this.

Do not expect Gen-Y to share your habit of getting up at 5:30, checking the market, wolfing down a processed breakfast and getting to work by 7:30. Just because Jack So-and-so or Rupert Whatisname did things that way means nothing to these kids. “Legendary CEOs” aren't Gen-Y role models; they want to be like the Google guys.

So what can we do with all this? How can we turn Generation Y’s work attitude into something beneficial?

To cater to their demand for meaningful work, tie anything that needs to be done to revenue. Coach them to set high personal development goals and track these at review time. Have prospective young employees define “meaningful”. If that does not align with what your company’s business is, they may not be a good hire. Alternatively, people being hired for non-revenue positions may very well be motivated by your company's participation in community outreach programs.

The pack mentality of Gen-Y is well suited for collaborative teams, and makes them uniquely prepared for Agile work environments. Rather than putting them in single cubicles with a window to an Internet full of distractions, put them in larger rooms with shared table-space. The peer pressure will keep momentum up and distractions down. The collaborative setup will bring out the best in them. The small chunks of work will fit their attention span and the rapid results will cater to their zest for instant gratification.

The concept of people being in an office 9-5 is bunk. Urban sprawl and associated traffic congestion, rising fuel prices and subsequent public transportation congestion conspire against this ancient rite and make telecommuting more attractive. Bosses who want people in an office at all times do not understand how to measure the value that their staff brings. Either the work gets done at a desired quality level or it doesn’t.

Generation-Y will be much more open to alternative ways of working and will profess to have a higher set of morals than our contemporaries do. This creates an opportunity for us to groom our future leaders, driven by their own ambitions. So if we let go of our idée fixe of how people are supposed to work and focus on achieving results, we will get full cooperation from our new recruits and just may learn a new trick or two.

Who knows, you and your executives may like this new-found efficiency and take up a new, Boomer-appropriate hobby. Harley, anyone?

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