Getting to Know Gen Why


February 28, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

Eric Chester, president of Generation Why, a consulting organization that speaks about generational differences, is the author of Getting Them to Give A Damn: How to Get Your Front Line to Care About Your Bottom Line. I am always fascinated by generational differences and how they play out in the workplace. Since Eric is an expert on the topic of dealing with younger employees, I had a great time talking with him. Here are highlights of our recent conversation:

It’s quite common to hear leaders commiserate about Generation Y, or the emerging workforce. But collectively, are they really that much different than young workers of 10 or 20 years ago? Aren’t kids still kids?

There are significant differences in this emerging generation. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking to a shift manager at a burger joint, or an exec at a Wall Street investment firm; the rant is almost identical.

And what is that complaint?

What you hear is: “They don’t want to pay their dues, play by the rules, or give their best to any project unless they are sure it will get them a promotion, a raise, or some kind of recognition. And then if they aren’t totally happy, or if you look at them wrong, they’ll bolt for the next job!”

Why do you think that this generation views/approaches work so differently than their parents?

Two primary reasons: First, they’ve actually been victims of the Baby Boomer work ethic. Because mom and dad are working more hours than ever before, the average kid gets far less face time with their parent than you and I had. And those conversations are rarely about the importance of working hard, keeping your nose to the grindstone, giving your very best to each and every job, etc. Plus, pop culture doesn’t teach them what the key to success is.

How does pop culture affect this?

They see people getting very rich, very young—and many of them from sports, music, Internet deals, and even game shows. Worse yet, many of them are getting an absurd amount of fame and fortune from outrageous behavior and very little contribution toward the greater good. This creates a perfect storm where kids are accustomed to the nice stuff that their parents’ hard work provides, but they reject the process that it took to get it.

Today’s students memorize names, dates, and algebraic equations, but they graduate having no concept of the importance of showing up for work on time, dressing professionally, following instructions, bringing their best to work every day, etc.

Home and school. Parents and teachers. When you step back, it’s easy to see why young people may be rejecting the time-honored rules of success at work. But have the rules really changed?

The rules are essentially the same, but this generation—unfortunately—hasn’t been taught the rules. Many parents have coddled their kids, made excuses for their poor behavior and performance and focused far too much on their self-esteem. Today, every kid on a sports team gets a trophy for being on the team. They haven’t been taught how important real work is to success.

But that doesn’t mean they are stupid or that they can only rattle off rap lyrics and cheat codes for their X-Box games. They have an amazing grasp of technology and they know how to think on their feet. They’ve been raised with change as a constant, so they adapt easily to the tumultuous business climate that scares most Boomers to death and even threatens Gen X’ers.

What does this mean for employers?

These kids are street smart and know they need lots of skills to impress their next employer and get to the next level, but they’re used to information being presented to them with high-speed graphics and an adrenaline rush. As you might imagine, training as it now stands must be completely reinvented.

Starting with the training they receive in public schools… How can we get this resource to perform up to our expectations—and their capabilities?

First, let go of the anger. And make no mistake about it… there are a lot of angry managers out there. Realize that this generation isn’t bad, just different. The world they’ve been exposed to is radically different from the one you and I grew up in, and they are not going to value work the same way you and I do.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t be tremendous contributors to your team, or that they won’t be loyal to your company. However if you try to manage them the way you were managed when you first came into the workplace, you’re toast. I think every leader relying on Gen Why talent to grow their business needs to realize that the techniques that may have worked with young people in the past may not work in the future.

What will work?

Learn all you can about “Generation Why.” After all, how can you lead them if you don’t understand them? Immerse yourself in Gen Why culture and seek to understand how successful companies are engaging them as employees—and consumers. There are a lot of forward-thinking companies doing it right—and reaping the rewards. The day you commit to understanding how they see the world is the day you begin to truly connect with them.

Most importantly, create and build a relationship through face time. They may not have received enough of this from their parents and teachers, and they may, at first, be suspicious of your wanting to get to know them as more than employees. Nonetheless, vigilantly search for connecting points. Don’t be satisfied teaching them your organization’s legacy and indoctrinating them with your story and expectations. Get to know what rocks their world, what music is on their iPod, what they say about themselves on MySpace, who their heroes are—and why, etc.

These are the simple yet essential strategies that will enable you to bond at a level that will pay huge dividends in the future. You don’t have to be their buddy; in fact, don’t be. They want you to be a boss, a leader, and most importantly, a mentor. But they’ll only give you their all if they know that you truly care about them, and are committed to their personal and professional development. So “whys up” and go all in.