How To Lead Generation Y: Delivering The Leadership That Will Make Them Thrive Is Easier Than You Think

by Urs Koenig, PhD, MBA

Personal note: In my previous position as marketing director at Merriman, a financial advising firm, I had both the two oldest (60+) and the youngest member (23) of the entire firm on my team. My team spanned almost all four of the previous generations (Traditionalists, born between 1926-1938), Baby Boomers (1945-1960), Generation X (1961-1981), and Generation Y (1985-1995). Including an intern, I had four Generation Y members working for me. One of the things I enjoyed most about my job was to facilitate and lead intergenerational team-work. If you are leading young adults (or are in charge of people who lead them) I believe you will find the lessons I have learned about leading members of Generation Y helpful.

Shannon is 25 years old. She is in her second job out of college. She was hired as a ‘high potential’ candidate by her current company. She survived several rounds of layoffs and is very unhappy in her current position. Her old-school, corporate, generation-X boss micromanages her time while not providing much feedback or guidance on her actual job. Shannon is disillusioned with management and cynical about her job. She puts in the absolute minimum in time and effort and spends a lot of her working time surfing the web. The poor job market is the only thing stopping her from leaving the company.

Bruce is 19 years old and in his second year of college. He is the third generation in a family business. His grandfather (70) only recently handed over day-to-day operations to his father (45). This summer Bruce is interning as the ‘social media guru,’ his first paying job in the family business. After a few weeks, he is highly frustrated. In his view, people at the company simply ‘don’t get it.’ He truly desires to make an impact and help make a difference but feels that no one is listening to his ideas or values his input. In the interest of family peace, he decides to continue with the internship but secretly vows to never again work in this family business.

The above real-life examples demonstrates what happens when Generation Y leadership goes bad.

Today’s young adults entering the workforce are a different breed than those of any of the generations before them. They must be lead slightly differently as they enter the workforce:

Provide constant feedback (and manage their sense of entitlement)
These young adults are used to and crave instant and constant feedback. Most of them grew up with lots of praise. Many Trophy Kids received ribbons and trophies simply for showing up at Saturday games. Their parents have told them over and over again they can achieve anything they want. They are highly optimistic and sometimes out of touch with reality. They are definitely not used to being told that the quality of their work needs improvement.

As their leader, it is virtually impossible for you to over communicate. Provide them with ongoing, just-in-time feedback. Give them the praise and appreciation they crave. At the same time, hold them accountable. You might be the first one to ever tell them the truth about the quality of their work. If they are falling short, you need to tell them. As their leader and mentor, you need to help them discover their weaknesses and strengths and then play to those strengths

A word of caution though: Don’t ever micro manage their time. Instead, lead by objective. They value a flexible schedule and might do their best work from the local Starbucks or at 2 a.m. in their pajamas. Assess their performance, not their attendance!

Be a strong mentor and coach
This is probably the most important lesson of them all. Members of Generation Y are extremely responsive to mentoring and coaching. Develop strong and meaningful relationships with them by really getting to know them: Take them for coffee, go for a lunchtime walk/run, play some golf and most important, ask questions and really listen to what they have to say.

Learn their passions, their desires, their aspiration in life. In return, share your experiences and lessons you have learned. They are hungry for your insights, they love to be ‘in the know’ and they will soak up your knowledge, feedback and advice. Become their strong mentor and coach and your Gen Y’s will thrive, blossom and follow you loyally.

You might also explore a ‘reversed mentoring’ approach, something Jack Welch at GE pioneered over 20 year ago. The idea is to pair Baby boomers with members of Generation Y. The Boomers share their work experience while the Generation Y team members enlighten Boomers about new technologies and social networking.

Share why their work is important
These young people have little time for doing things because they are told to do so or because ‘that’s how we have always done it.’ They are hungry for data and information. Remember that, for better or worse, many of them are constantly multi-tasking, and are taking in thousands of technology messages every day. Faced with this overload, they quickly sort incoming information between what they deem is ‘need to know’ versus ‘nice to know’.

Provide them with lots of context and information. Communicate the importance of their work and tell them how it fits into the company’s overall big picture. Help them see that what they do really matters. Show them how their work is making your organization better, making a difference in the world and is part of something bigger – not just adding to the bottom line. Several studies, for example, have shown the importance of environmental causes for Generation Y.

In short: get them fired up for your vision, show them how their work will directly help you to make the vision a reality and your Gen Y-ers will be the best people who ever worked for you!

Give them opportunity for input and ownership
Members of Generation Y have been on their laptops since they were four. They grew up with posting and voting on Facebook and blogs. They have a strong desire to express themselves, to comment and to provide input on topics.

Be bold and have them provide you input and feedback on high-level strategic topics which you would normally not share with them. They will forever value you for giving them the opportunity to ‘upload their thoughts’ and much like any generation before them, they will throw their support behind what they helped to create.

After they have given you their input, it’s time to challenge them: Carve out a project with a clearly defined deliverable, a budget and a timeline, then give them full ownership of it. Make yourself available as a coach and mentor. But don’t micromanage them or their projects.

Be tough when assessing the results of their work by providing the honest, credible feedback they so crave.

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One thought on “How To Lead Generation Y: Delivering The Leadership That Will Make Them Thrive Is Easier Than You Think

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