The care and feeding of millennials
An executive consultant offers a user’s manual for managing the next generation of IT worker.
As IT leaders move up the management ladder, they lose touch with the youngest workers just starting up the lower rungs. Today’s IT leaders—and veteran managers in general—are finding that yesterday’s top-down leadership model simply doesn’t resonate with the next generation entering the enterprise. Unlike their predecessors, millennials expect a collaborative manager who specializes in coaching and constant feedback (much like the parents and teachers who raised them). And with 80 million millennials in America—nearly half of whom are already in the workforce—getting to understand what makes them tick is crucial. Well-honed soft skills are required of CTOs/CIOs who want to successfully lead, mentor, and nurture the next wave in order to better serve the enterprise.
We asked Tammy Hughes, CEO and senior consultant at Claire Raines Associates, for guidance on understanding the new wave of workers. Claire Raines Associates provides briefings, webinars, speeches, and workshops that aim to help executives “tap the potential of all the generations” in today’s workplace. Previously, Hughes spent eight years at Xerox in corporate education, training, and sales.
Hughes offers figures that provide perspective. About 36 million baby boomers, those born from 1940 through 1960, are in the workforce; generation X (born from 1960 through 1980) is represented by approximately 68 million in the workforce. The millennial generation, which debuted in 1980, is fast approaching the previous generation, with about 48 million among the working population.
Q: How would you characterize what makes millennials in the workplace different from previous generations?
Tammy Hughes: A big part of how every generation sees the world has to do with parenting style. If you think about it, it’s a big part of what shapes a generation, and it has changed radically. Like a pendulum, it has swung back and forth to extremes every single generation. Go back to World War II, when children were to be seen and not heard. Go to the baby boom generation and the pendulum goes the opposite direction because Dr. Spock writes the book: “Don’t discipline. Don’t give corrections. Just love and nurture.”
Generation X was a really small generation, and it was the first generation on the planet to have a 50 percent divorce rate for parents, so a lot were being raised by a single parent. We hadn’t seen that in history before, and it created latchkey children, who came home from school and took care of themselves for a few hours before their baby boom parents—who worked long hours—came home. So they became really good at autonomous things, doing things by themselves. Key messages for the X-ers were things like, “Don’t trust anybody; only trust yourself.”
Then the pendulum goes back the other direction, to where now we have a familial generation—“helicopter parents, soccer moms”—with parents who are strong advocates for their children. So parenting styles have changed dramatically and … the new workers often look to their managers to be like their parents.
Q: Millennials are often characterized as rather fearless about diving into a project headfirst—whether they know really how to do it or not.
TH: You are right about that; however, there’s one caveat. After you’ve set them loose, they need regular feedback, and that’s because of parenting style. An X-er would call that micromanaging: “Just tell me what to do and leave me alone. I’ll get it done and I’ll bring it back to you and, by the way, don’t tell me how many hours I have to put into this, because in my generational culture, the fewer hours I put into it to establish the best result, the better, because then I can have a life. Then I can pick my kids up at school and I can kayak after work.” X-ers really want a life because they were raised by parents that didn’t spend as much time with them, so they’re very driven to not let that be their saga with their children. When you find a great X-er, you need to figure out how you help them shape a life that works for them as well.
Q: Are millennials more comfortable being part of a team than the previous generation?
TH: The millennials want to be part of a positive culture, and so where that really shows is in how you define team. Typically, you have to coach X-ers to work on teams. You have to show them what’s in it for them, why it would benefit them to participate and be part of the team. Millennials want to be part of a team. As the first digital natives on the planet, they grew up doing lots of assignments in school that had to do with being plugged in with people on the other side of the globe. For the World War II generation, unless they got a chance to get on an airplane and go somewhere else, they didn’t understand other cultures. Baby boomers came to technology later in life. X-ers grew up a little bit more plugged in, but the millennials are so plugged in digitally.
Q: What communication style resonates with millennials?
TH: Keep it positive, use a collaborative approach, make it motivational. Think about how they were parented; you must motivate, and then coach to the goals. It really works because that’s the kind of parenting they got. If you try to coach an X-er, they’re going to get really ticked off because that’s not the parenting style they had. And then of course, millennials are looking for any sort of additional communication. Text them, that’s fantastic. Some of the big chains that we work with—Burger King, McDonald’s—figured out how they could disseminate the weekly schedules via text, and the millennials just jumped up and down and said “Yay!”
Q: What kind of work environment appeals to millennials?
TH: The working environment that millennials are looking for is very achievement-oriented. They want it to be challenging. Millennials love anything that’s web-like. They are future-oriented. Plan it out, because they’re big dreamers, and the rungs on the ladder are really close together for this generation. The digital era has shortened those up a lot, and they also are going to be shortened up a little bit by sheer numbers, with fewer X-ers overall, followed by such a large generation coming behind. There are people who will get places faster than they used to. That is ambition, but that’s also the nature of just sheer numbers.
Q: Do you invent new rungs for them?
TH: No. You don’t have to do that, but let the older managers know that millennials come into the workforce expecting that it’s going to be a much smaller gap between rungs. The World War II generation understood that it could take you 10 to 15 years to get to a management position. It was also very common to stay at that company for 35 years, retire, and get your Rolex. That was part of the culture. That’s not part of the culture today. This new young generation—and really the X-ers started it—sell themselves as a commodity. They say, “I’m going to go to Microsoft for a couple of years because I really want to learn this software, and then I’m going to pull out and I’m going to go work for HP for a couple of years to learn something else, and then I’m going to go to Facebook. There’s something that they’re doing over at Facebook with their culture that I want to pick up on.” So they see themselves as just adding to their tool belt everywhere they go, which is a radical change from the older generation, who saw themselves and their loyalty quite differently.
Q: Would you say that IT leaders should learn how to accommodate all generational diversity preferences?
TH: No. Here’s the litmus test that I always use first. Do you get the output from this person that you need? Are they one of the best and brightest? If so, you must figure out how you create a life that’s going to work for them. That’s the test. Managers often focus on people who come into their offices asking for all kinds of things. A lot of times, the ones who are squeaky wheels and ask for a lot are not the most productive ones. Those aren’t the ones that we shape programs for. It’s ones who lead the pack in productivity to whom we say, “I can’t lose you. I have to keep you.” In the IT world, that’s really important.
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