Welcome to the new Millenial(s) – 4 Ways The Generation Gap Can Be Leaped

millenial eMillenials have been taking a beating lately in what passes for our wellsprings of social commentary.  It may be a legit opinion in countries that continue to abide a caste system or accept clan and tribal conflict as just. However, in the West, especially in a nation that continues to have example after example in which the only limits to achievement are self-imposed, it seems to be an odd right of passage. We (grumpily) pile on each succeeding generation with various versions of how many miles we walked to school, how many hills there were, and how big our burden was along the way. It almost seems like freshman hazing since it eventually gets passed down enough until 30 year-olds are telling high school graduates how tough it was for them (when the TV remote got lost – sorry, couldn’t resist!).

In any event, “Millenials” are identified as having a birthday between 1980 and 2000, give or take. This spans a whole lot of cultural landmarks in the West, particularly the medium of communication, between peers, parents, and the social institutions that for better or worse define our development as contributing members of society. I have yet to see an accurate group measure of personality traits such as narcissism, laziness, unrealistic optimism, or shallowness. These are all claims hurled against the latest “generation” which seems a little weird if it includes a person born in 1980, and one born in 1998.  The changes to the world, and specifically the world of young adolescents and teenagers, in an 18-year span are too numerous to list.  I think it is fair to state that what passes for a “base” human skill has changed somewhat. Those who entered the workplace before computers and word processing even arrived in college had a different mix of skills at that moment in time than those who used such items in elementary school.

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millenial 1From my perspective, confidence and optimism is something I want in a person who is entering a “career” field. Whether it is ill-defined, or excessive, or unrealistic, is something to be considered by the owner/operator, not by the beneficiary. I will admit that I have observed some of the attributes of the “Trophy Generation”. Although it may be a catchphrase, the people who gave them the trophies for “Best Tryer” was us. As Pogo said, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.” So, if there are legit criticisms of entitlement or self-absorption, or just an elevated sense of personal value, didn’t we raise them this way? Our bad….

The studies and survey’s I have seen show that about 75% of the generation dooming our way of life contributes to charity, and volunteers in some capacity. And don’t get me started about what it takes to graduate from high school these days.  If my high school senior class had been directed to do a “senior project” that involved anything other than a bonfire kegger, they would have done it on school property and burned the school down. So, in the words of Frank Drebin, “move along, nothing to see here.”

As leaders, how does the generational gap play out in the fields where we do our business?  What are the dynamics of the leadership when the relationship is between someone born before JFK and someone born after Reagan? Well, in no particular order, I suggest the following:

  1. CLEAR COMMUNICATION – Rant after blog after article defines Team Millenial as an entitled cohort who arrive in the workplace with Great Expectations. So, address it. Be clear about the future of the organization, what expectations you have of the entire team, the culture you expect, and be consistent with how you put your vision into effect. If your vision seems incoherent, or discriminative to those who “haven’t paid their dues”, you are clearly communicative. And, you should expect to be running lots of hiring panels.

  2. REALITY CHECK – Leaders are required to run multi-generational teams. Not bosses. Leaders inspire, motivate, set the tone, and communicate expectations. Bosses manage people instead of processes, seek harmony, and hold to the status quo. Bosses don’t like change because it may force them to do so. Bosses look at the Tuckman model of Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing, and freak at the possibility of storms. Check yourself.

  3. CHALLENGE – Let them know what you think of their work, listen to them, frame your feedback with questions, give them early ownership, and create a culture where risk is managed but not avoided, and daring is necessary. Say what you will about work ethic, but this is the fastest learning group of people in history. When you consider the sheer volume of information they have been able to absorb in their time on earth compared to prior generations, it should boggle your mind.  Challenge them early, up front, and often.

  4. CONNECT FIRST, LOYALTY LATER – If there is any defining characteristic about Millenials that I think has a grain of truth, it is that they are way more skilled at connecting with people than the generations that preceded them.  Given the technology boost and their comfort with the devices of the day, they are sharers of the first magnitude and capable of finding connections everywhere, in places some of us older people can’t even visualize. What we think we do better as a cohort is the depth of our connections. We were raised on loyalty to the team, the organization, and willing to give it up front as a down payment.  Our younger teammates may need an extra step to buy in before they are willing to commit to the team. If you want to turn this into a tug of war as to which should come first, their commitment or your loyalty to them, that is a fool’s errand.  Earn their loyalty, and their commitment, as it should be.

millenial 4If I appear to have a sense of hope and positive expectation about the future that I will bequeath, as a leader, to others, I do. If there is a variable, it rests with me and how well I do my job. Every leader faces this exact same dynamic and it all gets figured out in the end. I believe the stories that pursue the negative narrative are for the most part, possessed of the same thought process that drives the front page of the paper of the first five minutes of the local newscast….”In other news tonight, 99.9% of the town contributed to society, raised their family, and was in bed by 10…”.

One final note. As a member of the military, it is extremely hard to fathom the hand-wringing effect of news stories that suggest the current generation is increasingly unqualified to serve, for reasons of intelligence, or sloth, or behavior. No one seems put off by the fact that Stanford doesn’t admit every class valedictorian who applies. If we are surprised that only 25% of American youth, ages 18-25, possess the qualifications to serve their country, then we as a country have bought into a stereotype of just who is qualified to wear the cloth of our country. The military is not a safety school, despite what today’s parents may think about their child’s options. I have spoken to more than one recruiter who related the sheer incredulousness of a parent when told that while Johnny met all the requirements for service, he was not chosen for one of the basic training slots.  The expectation that our military recruiting stations are some sort of French Foreign Legion for teenagers continues to be perpetuated. Our military has done pretty well with the Millenial generation who have willingly accepted the challenge to serve, be part of something bigger than themselves, and sacrifice for others, all of which traits us smartypants thought that, as Millenials, they were incapable.  And if there was any concern with their commitment, I will point to the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest award for bravery in the armed services. There have been 16 Americans who have earned the award in our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of those, 12 were Millenials, the youngest of whom was 19 when he earned the award.


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So, when I state that I have both hope and optimism, it is because I have seen all I need to see. I accept my responsibilities to prepare the next generation of leaders, and as we move into the new year, to those of you who aspire to lead your teams to greatness, I am at your service.

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2015 LEADERSHIP RESOLUTIONS SURVEY: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/J5Z8HP7