Working with the whY Generation...

I wrote a blog post called "Creative Problem Solving... a case study" that garnered a surprising amount of commentary, particularly regarding some insights into the Y Generation (Millennials). It was not my intention to talk about one of my most favorite management and leadership topics, but rather use them as a back drop for my "case study" (aka, story) - I was really working the "creative problem solving" angle.  I am sensing they are as energetic as ever, and with 32 million settling into the U.S. workforce alone, I thought I would offer some further thoughts. I have read a white paper or two on the topic, but most of my insight comes from hiring over seventy-five Millennials and managing dozens at any given time - I feel comfortable weighing in. 

If you are wondering where the term came from, it goes something like this... almost twenty five years ago, Douglas Coupland popularized the term Generation X, as well as a generation, in his book by the same name. In great creative fashion, the next generation (those born after 1980-ish), were coined Generation Y... it's still a little fuzzy whether there is an official Generation Z. This is actually a good place to start, as much of the commentary and perspective regarding the Y Generation is coming from the Gen X and the tail end of the Baby Boomers. If you ask the Millennials, they have it all figured out, and the others are the ones with the issues. 

Much of my thinking will come from a Gen X and Baby Boomer leadership perspective, but if you were born after 1980, it may offer you some insights with managing up. Let me paint a picture of the Y Generation, knowing up front, it is with a broad brush.

  • They are smart and educated, which can be accompanied with a healthy dose of self worth.
  • Very technologically and socially savvy, particularly with anything involving personal devices.
  • Yes, they have an air of "entitlement".*
  • There is an enhanced sense of work-life balance.  
  • Collaboration and a sense of "team" are important.
  • If they are not happy, the will move on.
  • They require regular validation and re-enforcement
  • Have aggressive professional expectations.
  • They want mentorship and leadership.

If you are working with Millennials, none of this will be surprising, so lets jump in. 

As leaders, I have seen us fall into this particular trap - Since they are smart, engaging, confident, know technology (we may not), and say the "right" things, we make the mistake of confusing their potential with actual ability (Millennials also make the same mistake, so at least we are all on the same page). I have seen impressed leaders end up with miscast situations, as they have confused potential to do a good job with actual ability. This is a very important point... conversations need to be around "potential" and not perceived "ability". This will help align expectations. Expectations... realistic expectations, are everything.

I remember speaking with a more than a few Millennials six months into their new sales role and they very honestly told me they had mastered their current position and it was time for their promotion; particularly since they had their eye on being a Sales Director in five years. This is where grounded conversations regarding their potential and development of their abilities are needed. I will also tell you up front that when you tell a Millennial it will take five years to develop a set of competencies, they will tell you it will only take them nine months. This is where the label of "entitlement" tends to get bantered about. Development plans, with measurable competencies  are key for constructive conversations, as well as establishing benchmarking for that "superstar" who ultimately does it in nine months.

Millennials are very collaborative, team oriented and socially wired (literally and figuratively). They are prone to speak as, and for the "collective", particularly with issues that may be very personal; they will expect to be heard (and probably agreed with). Transparency in a team setting is everything in my experience - Explain to them who you are, what you expect, the rules, what you like, what you don't like, how best to communicate, when you are wrong, when you are right, when they are right, when they are wrong, ask what they think, translate corporate speak for them, define success and define failure. The Y Generation is thirsty for leaders and mentors who will help them, even when they have it mastered, because deep down know they haven't.

As a leader, the Y Generation will challenge you... they will challenge your ability to develop, retain, motivate and engage - You will become a better leader for it, although it can be quite exhausting.

In the title, I referred to the Y Generation as the whY Generation - Other than being somewhat "witty", I did it because a number of years ago, my HR partner and I presented to commercial leadership, regarding the potential of the Gen Y and the group I led;  "whY" I felt they were important for the future, and why I was having so much fun.

Above pretty much summarizes what I said. The over performance and the pipeline of great talent was just a bonus.


* I heard this story of a Millennial who was an entry level sales professional selling cars. At the end of the month, he had missed his quota and did not receive his commission as per his agreement. The next day the parents went to see the General Manager of the car dealership and argued that their son should be paid his commission. The General Manager explained to the parents how the real world works and kicked them out of his office. I don't think the Y Generation were born entitled.