Gen X Leading Gen M(illennial) Teams
Updated: Jun 7, 2019
This article was prompted by a social media post from a friend of a friend. The friend-of-a-friend posed an open question to others about their experiences managing Millennials in the workforce – a thinly veiled rant at the generational gap he was experiencing. My friend, the friend-of-a-friend, and I are at the same level of “experience” (my thinly veiled attempt at avoiding the use of the word “age”) so I felt compelled responding to him. My reply was among the lines of “Love hiring them – I may be lucky, but they never disappointed me.” His reply was: “You are lucky!”. A few more people (obvious Gen X-ers like us) chimed in, all sharing his sentiment.
It made me think – was it really “luck”? Having the experience with a handful of Millennials is hardly a statistical sample to allow me to make generation-spanning conclusions. But on the other hand – each one of our handful of Millennials is a great performer, often outperforming a lot more “experienced” engineers. We must have done something right with my management team beyond being “lucky” recruiting the “right” people. I would like to share some thoughts and experiences here, hoping they will be of help to other Gen X managers.
But before that, let’s explore the (perceived) problem stemming from the differences in attitudes of the two generations (stereotypes are there for a reason!).
It used to be cool to be called a “Gen X baby” – anti-establishment rebels, non-conformists, free spirits, wearing brow-raising fashions and listening to loud and angry music. We were the antitheses of the baby boomer generation. We were called “rotten” and “doomed”. And we were proud of it. (Growing up behind the iron curtain didn’t make a big difference, it only exacerbated certain aspects of it.) Eventually, we grew up, got our engineering, business, law, or medical degrees. We changed out of the acid-washed ripped jeans, and into business suits. We got families, and big jobs – both requiring tons of responsibilities and hard work. We became the new establishment. Somehow, we managed to assert ourselves into the baby-boomer-dominated management echelons and we became managers and leaders ourselves. We meshed well at the workplace with the Gen Y and Gen Z… but the problems started when the Millennials hit the workforce – the generation of our own children. Coincidence?
The prevalent complaints from the friends of the friend-of-a-friend on that social media post were that Millennials are: entitled, impatient, refuse to do manual or menial tasks, narcissistic, social media obsessed, addicted to electronics, shallow… Pretty much – “rotten” and “doomed”. Sounds familiar?
Well, here is some food for thought:
1. Don’t Complain – We Created That Generation
We are collectively responsible (didn’t say “guilty”!) for shaping the Millennial generation being what it is (“We” as in our entire generation, not only the brave bunch who decided to procreate and raise kids). We poured our energy and talent into creating and advancing the technologies that led to the .com boom, Internet 2.0, online shopping, My Space, video games, CBT learning, and cell phones – everything that leads to instant gratification, we built a platform for it. At the same time, while we were so busy keeping up with careers and family, we let the TV be the nanny a tad too often, and we replaced dinner table conversation and story time with “educational” electronics and games. Why are we surprised that the Millennials have short attention spans and are so electronics-dependent? We programmed them that way.
2. It Is What You Make of It
It is all a point of view. With all the negative connotations from the above, there are a lot of positives on the flip side of the coin. From my observations, Millennials are extremely compliant and approval seeking. (We were the rebels and troublemakers!) They absorb information and knowledge very quickly and process it at speed we can hardly keep up with. They are raised in times of change and disruption – they handle it better and adapt to it a lot quicker than us. By being “lazy” and refusing to perform menial tasks, Millennials are a lot more innovative and ready to embrace automation and improve quality. It is a leader’s responsibility to harness the intellectual curiosity, give a license for innovation and provide the mechanisms for reward and approval. Show them you appreciate them, and they will surprise you!
3. Love Them as Your Own, But Don’t Parent Them
To answer my own earlier rhetorical question – it is not a coincidence that the managerial crisis occurred only when the age gap reached the span of approximately one generation. On a very subconscious level, we relate to authority figures in life and in the workplace in ways similar to how we relate to authority figures in our own family. (There is an entire field of Psychology and volumes of research on “attachment theory” exploring the subject.) Since we are the authority figures in the workplace and we have the power, we have the responsibility and control to steer the Millennials’ internal attitude on how they will look at us – as protectors and mentors, or as ignorant taskers. They will mirror the energy we put into building that relationship – positive or negative. But, do not make the mistake of treating them as your children and trying to parent them! They are already grownups – earned their degrees, making their own money, contemplating trading their Vans for dress shoes, even starting a family of their own.
4. Challenge, Don’t Micromanage
On the same token, Millennials do love a good challenge. They will use all their creativity, energy, online surfing skills and even a good chunk of their personal time to find a solution to a well-framed problem. They love to prove themselves and earn our praise. Positive reinforcement is one of the most powerful tools in our managerial toolbox.
5. Don’t Feel Threatened, Experience and Wisdom Still Count
I’ve had a seasoned engineer come to me complaining that a Junior broke something that was working, clearly showing a frustration that the youngster, in their haste, made a rookie mistake and created more work for them. The real problem being that the “thing” that was “working” was a good solution from 2 years ago, which was no longer keeping up with the new demands of the project. The senior engineer was too complacent to look for a better approach, and the junior engineer, who watched a video on YouTube and wanted to try it, didn’t have the configuration management discipline to implement it correctly. My response to the seasoned engineer was that instead of complaining to me, he had an opportunity he could take to show his seniority – mentor the junior and teach the junior guys how to plan, communicate, test and implement a change without any undesired side effects. Seniority is not in the years of experience, but in the grace with which we handle critical situations and work with people through times of challenge.
6. Be a Leader, Not a Boss
Recently, I myself received a lesson in leadership from one of my senior line managers (also a Gen X-er). We were working on preparing a team of full-stack engineers for a critical hackathon. Our company reputation and a 7-digit chunk of money were at stakes. I was fortunate to have a group of very talented and experienced engineers, designers, and developers on the team, and I needed an experienced tester to be their match. I tapped on the shoulder that said manager – a person for whom I have a great deal of respect. A couple of preparatory work sessions into it, he came to me and he said: “Bella, I’d like M. (“M.” standing for “Millennial engineer we hired less than a year ago not fully graduated from college”) to take my spot on the hackathon team. He can do there everything that is needed, he is better than me with certain tools, and I am jeopardizing the performance of my entire team on our day-job project by not being available to them while preparing for the hackathon”. As I was working through my internal dilemma of taking the risk of bringing an inexperienced teammate to a high-stakes event vs trusting the judgment of a respected manager, the manager quietly transitioned all tasks to M. and sent him in his stead to the next dry run. I wasn’t particularly happy, to say the least, and I was ready to have a tough talk with the manager afterward about not relinquishing his duties without my explicit approval. Needless to say, M. performed flawlessly, filled a few gaps on the fly, and delivered results faster and better than his own manager. It takes a true leader to see and build talent and to find the right time an opportunity to thrust his protégé into a challenge and let them shine.
“That ADHD Thing I Have”
As another example, another one of our Millennial engineers has been instrumental in solving many tough-to-crack problems, very sharp, accountable, always ready to raise his hand and take a stretch assignment. He has been both praised by his team and line manager for his talents, and reprimanded for his childish, loud and disruptive behavior in group settings. After working directly with him for a period on a special project and one group working session where he was particularly loud and disruptive, I pulled him privately into my office. He needed to receive some feedback on both his great and impactful work, but also on his behavior. He knew something was wrong and he pre-empted my comments: “I know I was too loud. I didn’t mean to, but that ADHD thing I have is not helping. It is late in the afternoon; my medication is wearing off and it is harder for me to control it. I will try to be better. Please give me a signal next time I am out of line so that I know.” I was completely dismayed by his honesty. What everyone perceived as arrogance and disrespect, turned out to be a medical problem. This incident made me realize that the epidemic of depression, anxiety, insomnia, ADD, and ADHD disorders that are plaguing the Millennial generation (too many high school kids I know through family and friend connections) is starting to impact the workplace as well. A little empathy and awareness from the Gen X-ers will go a long way.
It Is the Circle of Life
There were lost generations, “rotten” and “doomed” long before us. They made it and left a mark on history. We made it and we are making our mark. The Millennials will make it too. But how will they remember us – as old nags or as their mentors and champions?
Your opinions, thoughts, and tips are welcome!
Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions stated here are personal and do not represent any organization I am or have been affiliated with.