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How to manage the 'most misunderstood’ but ‘well meaning’ generation

Harnessing the connections and engagement levels of millennials is the single biggest people management and customer opportunity today, writes Bruce Cotterill
Attendees at Xerocon 2018

Attendees at Xerocon 2018

If they like us, they can provide the most wonderful endorsement. If they don’t like us, they can kill our business in 24 hours

Bruce Cotterill

There’s a new generation in our workforce. They’ve been joining up over the last 10 years. They were born between the early ‘80s and late ‘90s, and their numbers are growing rapidly in workplaces around the world. Most of them are under 30 years of age. All of them are under 35. I refer to them as ‘Generation F’.

Generation F doesn’t mean something disrespectful that your mind might be racing to. In my interpretation, it stands for ‘The Facebook Generation’. The sons and daughters of baby boomers who cut their social networking teeth on Myspace, before graduating to Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and, for business, LinkedIn.

Of all the people that we manage today, this is the group that is the most misunderstood.

As logic would have it, they are also the group who are least likely to understand those of us who are managing, or trying to manage, them. The reason is simple. These people think differently, act differently and respond differently to almost everything we are likely to ask of them or do with them.

Members of Generation F are just as likely to be part of our own teams as they are to be our customers. There are a lot of them. Currently, they comprise almost 40 per cent of the workforce.

By 2025, that number will be approaching 75 per cent. If they like us, they can provide the most wonderful endorsement. If they don’t like us, they can kill our business in 24 hours.

This collective of young people are our future leaders and managers. Some of thebetter ones are already managing people, and are doing it well.

Of course, this isn’t the first time in history that different generations have had trouble understanding each other.

However, I am willing to suggest that this current generation is the most misunderstood, and probably the most well meaning, of them all.

While those young people have been growing up, the huge surge in the enablement of technology has supported their ‘need to know’ and they have become adept at finding the answers to anything they want to know.

When it comes to job hunting, they help each other and they can help you. A well-connected ‘20-something’ is probably better placed to quickly find you a new receptionist or a replacement warehouse worker than any number of well-meaning recruitment firms.

Bruce Cotterill
Bruce Cotterill

A well-connected ‘20-something’ is probably better placed to quickly find you a new receptionist or a replacement warehouse worker than any number of well-meaning recruitment firms.

In fact, for all of the negative things said by my generation about Generation F, my experience suggests that the positives outweigh them tenfold. In fact, the only area of their lives where they are not permanently engaged is at . . . WORK!

Harnessing the connections and engagement levels of Gen F is the single biggest people management and customer opportunity out there today.

Based on my experiences, here are some ideas about the things they want:

1. They want to know what the company is about. What are the organisation’s values, and what is the leadership trying to achieve? Where is the business going and what does the future look like? What are the key strategic objectives. Who are the key people? Who are the important customers?

2. They want to know how their role fits into those objectives, and they need to clearly understand what is expected of them. These people are desperate to contribute and they want to know why their role is important.

3. They want their role to be meaningful and relevant. Don’t hire a university graduate and ask them to make coffee and collect your dry-cleaning. They want a real job and they want to be able to understand why their job matters.

4. They are keen to know how the organisation as a whole is performing. These people can’t stand not knowing what’s going on. Tell them what the business is doing well and where there is a need for improvement. Give them financial performance information if you can. They want to know that they are part of a successful organisation.

5. They want feedback and lots of it. Are they doing a good job? If so, tell them. If not, tell them. And don’t wait until the annual performance review. Make sure that any negative feedback is immediate, current, specific, relevant, fair and constructive. If it’s just general, negative feedback, or you’re berating them for something that happened some time ago, they won’t understand, and in fact will assume, often incorrectly, that you are carrying a grudge and that you don’t like them. As one young leader working for one of the big banks said to me recently, ‘You have to remember that we grew up getting gold stars on our homework.

6. They will tell you that they are good at handling change because they have grown up in a rapidly changing society. However, they are quite resistant to change if they don’t understand the reasons for it. So, by all means involve them in the transformation projects, but make sure they understand why you are doing it.

7. They want to be involved. Don’t tell them what to do. Rather, include them in the conversation and encourage them to help to identify what needs to be done. If they are part of the decision-making process, their enthusiasm for the task will increase disproportionately, you will get greater engagement and a better outcome.

8. They want their opinion to matter. Listen to them. They will feel that they have ideas that are relevant to the business challenges and they will want to be able to share these. Remember they are used to people listening to their opinions.

9. Make sure you give them the tools they need to do the job. After all, they have always had the tools. Gen F are also the smartphone generation and they have always had the latest iPhones and Apple laptops at high school. If you give them a clunky two-year-old Lenovo ThinkPad on their first day, don’t expect them to be grateful. They will probably just bring their own computer to work.

10. Finally, they want to understand what the future looks like. This is not a generation that is scared of change; they will embrace it, as long as they understand what it looks like. They are keen to understand what the future looks like for the organisation, but also for themselves. They are ambitious and they want to know that they will progress and do new things if they do a good job. They like to know that they are making progress, at least at the same rate as their peers. If not, they need to understand why. (Back to the feedback factor again.)

At the risk of repeating myself:

Clarity of purpose. Communication. Consistency.

Next: 10 messages from millennials to their managers’ and ‘10 messages from managers to millennials’

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10 messages from millennials to their managers

1. What is the organisation trying to achieve?

2. Tell me who our key people are and how I can interact with them.

3. How does my role fit into the overall plan — how do I contribute to the achievement of the company objectives?

4. Make my role meaningful and relevant.

5. Please give me current, regular, constructive feedback and help me to grow.

6. How do I know if I am being successful?

7. Talk to me and listen to my opinions and ideas, and don’t criticise me for asking dumb questions.

8. Help me to understand why we are doing the things that we do.

9. Give me the tools I need to do the job.

10. Tell me where we are heading and help me to understand what the future looks like for our business and my role in that.

ShadowTech Day at Transpower
ShadowTech Day at Transpower

10 messages from managers to millennials

1. Listen to experienced people. They are not old, or out of date. They are experienced and you can learn from them.

2. Understand the differences between the way you were brought up and the real world; you won’t always win and you are not always right.

3. You have to prove yourself before you will get promoted.

4. Sometimes you will have to do stuff you don’t want to do, but you will learn a lot from those experiences.

5. Keep asking good questions. You will learn much as a result. If that frustrates your boss, you are at the wrong place.

6. Work really hard to have meaningful conversations with other people — face to face. Yes, even people you don’t know well.

7. The ability to build and maintain strong relationships with your team and your customers will always be important — and you don’t build relationships via social media. Be face to face as often as possible.

8. If you are not getting recognised or making an impact within six months, that’s okay. Learn the business, develop your skills, try different things and grow your role gradually as your skills develop.

9. Make the most of every opportunity, especially if you are given the opportunity to lead — take it.

10. Put your phone away. Look for opportunities to talk to people rather than stare at your phone — in the coffee shop or in the meeting room. Offer to help others instead of checking your Instagram feed. This will not come naturally to you. But it will help you to develop a broader range of people skills and you will build better relationships.

Bruce Cotterill has been at the helm of organisations of all sizes, from three people to 3500, with revenues ranging from zero to $800 million. As CEO, he has led turnarounds at real estate group Colliers, Kerry Packer’s ACP Magazines, and iconic Kiwi sportswear company Canterbury International.  He is a highly regarded business communicator assisting managers, leaders and their organisations to improve their performance and profitability. This is an excerpt from his book The Best Leaders Don’t Shout, where he shares the lessons learned as he and his teams have defended businesses against the threats of the poor performance he inherited, and then, turned those same businesses around into highly profitable organisations with engaged teams and ecstatic customers.