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Managing millennials

06/11/2007

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By Maureen Crawford Hentz

I always sort of believed in things other people didn't. Sasquatch? Sure. Loch Ness Monster? Possible. Millennials? I never for one minute believed they existed.

In a former life, out of a sense of obligation to the organizers, I attended a workshop on the millennial generation. I was working for a college in career services at the time, and, after all, this cohort was my client base.

After sitting in the workshop and hearing all about the "unique" generational characteristics of this group, I walked out with one of my staff members and remarked to her: "I can't believe we just wasted time on that -- it was so ludicrous," to which she remarked, "Yeah, I know, it was all so obvious."

Here was a millennial right next to me, affirming that not only had everything she heard resonated with her, but that she thought it to be so obvious as to be laughable. That two-second interaction rocked me right out of my GenX cocoon more effectively than the two-hour workshop had, and I became a believer.

Now, years later, I firmly believe that managing (and indeed interacting with) millennials is a skill not unlike cross-cultural communication. My experiences and the way I related to and in the world are not those of colleagues even 5-7 years younger than I. Their take on diversity, work-life balance, getting ahead and working in groups is radically different from my own.

In order to help other managers avoid cross-generational gaffes, here are my recommendations for managing this new generation:

1. Understand millennial culture - If you are skeptical, as I was, delve into the topic with detached anthropological curiosity, but do delve in. One of the best resources on this topic is the book Millennials Rising by Neil Howe and William Strauss. Originally published in 2000, it's an oldie but a goodie and doesn't spend too much time being precious. Another great resource is the Generations at Work blog authored by millennial guru Russ Eckel.

2. Understand that teamwork is king - Millennials have been working in teams their whole lives. While GenXers may visibly recoil at having to go to yet another meeting about a task force convened for a project, the team dynamic is second nature to millennials. Millennials will value opportunities to work in groups with not only peers, but colleagues across departments and divisions. Make time for meetings and group work, and ensure that the millennials you manage are exposed to teamwork often.

3. Technology is a vernacular - Millennials have grown up with computers and communications technologies. While many GenXers remember with envy the first rich college kids with computers, millennials played with computers as toys. Similarly, while GenXers may feel burdened by their electronic leash of a Blackberry, millennials feel naked and disconnected without it. Embracing technological tools is essential for managing millennials. Web conferencing, IM and long conversations on e-mail are commonplace, and are like a first language with millennials. As a manager, you can work with millennials on improving their skill set on what tools to best use for different situations. Knowing when e-mail is acceptable and when picking up the phone or strolling down the hall is much more effective is an essential lesson for them to learn.

4. Diversity issues should be a topic, not a given - Many millennials have been raised, schooled and socialized in environments decidedly more multicultural than other generations. For many millennials, diversity is a given: women have always been equal and multilingualism is a norm. A savvy manager will use this difference to continue to bring up the issues of the importance of diversity -- that to a large extent the workplace, and the world, are not yet equality-based environments, and that more work needs to be done. The concept of the old-boy network, both real and familiar to many of us, is relegated to ancient history by a generation who may never have experienced it.

5. Teach patience - One of the things that has been most challenging to me as a manager of millennials is what I, in my GenX cocoon, think of as career impatience. More and more I see millennials unwilling or unable to start at the bottom and work their way up. Grunt work is something other people should do, and paying dues doesn't seem to be part of their formula for career success. Many millennials feel that they have earned, through their schooling, the qualifications that better suit them for positions other than entry level. I have seen many millennials in these past few years spend 4 or 6 months on a job and then declare they are ready for a promotion. What has been an important lesson for me is reframing this not as impatience, or intolerance for the grunt work, but a natural result of this generation's upbringing (for more on this, see Millennials Rising). A lesson that is important is that of creating a reputation based on results rather than potential: what he or she does rather than who he or she is. Channeling millennials' need for new, novel and more challenging assignments while teaching about the importance of creating corporate credibility is one of the greatest challenges of managing this generation.

Now that I've been managing millennials, I don't ever want to go back. This generation is creative, generous with time, educated and truly delightful. When I read harping comments from GenXers and baby boomers about this so-called selfish generation, I cringe. I didn't believe that this new generation could be so different from us, so I too may have been a cranky Xer.

What I realized, however, and have been proselytizing about ever since, is that this is the group of people we will be selling to, serving, working with (and for!) for the next 25 years. This isn't a fad or a trend. The entire generation won't change just because we want them to. They will soon outnumber us and their culture will become the dominant culture. Savvy managers will help these cusp millennials adapt and thrive in their mixed-generation work environment and, in the process, they will learn some cross-cultural communication skills themselves.

Maureen Crawford Hentz is Manager of Talent Acquisition for Osram Sylvania, Inc. and is a NEHRA member. She is also a contributor to the HR Blog on the Boston.com/Monster Hiring Hub. Maureen can be reached at maureen.crawford@sylvania.com.

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