When people ask me what I’m working towards in this next phase of my career, I point to three important objectives on my near horizon: I want to keep turning smaller things into bigger things; I want to build or influence the most innovative work culture on the planet; I want to bridge gaps.

This last one is the newest. Since now that I’m not pinned to a corporate 8 to 8 role I can freely branch out, networking with all types and injecting myself into the least likely of career situations. I emphatically reject the concept of limitation, and my life across many dimensions has been all the better for it.

Not surprisingly, now that I’m more involved with startups, I’m rubbing shoulders with more and more Millennials. And, having managed a lot of people, I, a Gen Xer, have also worked with them in a supervisory role. I must say I cringe while merely typing that very term; I thoroughly dislike categorizing people. People are just people. Everyone is different. Each brings skill sets and skill deficiencies. I take ‘em one at a time.

But we’re talking more and more about Millennials – in articles, studies, profiles – and in professional circles it’s more about how to market to them or how to work with them. So yes, we start to standardize and categorize. And, inevitably, we take that last step to pass some occasional judgment. That tragic phenomenon happens in less policed environments such as blog posts and LinkedIn articles, but it’s a clear window into how a number of people think. I’m finding discernible gaps between the generations based on the unwarranted perceptions we have of each other and in this particular post, I’m going to single out my tribe for not having it right.

We are a self-righteous bunch. We celebrate our experience and accomplishments in achieving business results over the last few decades and use that as license to compel others to adapt to us. But we live in a different world now and more importantly one that is transforming year by year and not generation by generation. In this earlier article on the Next Generation Workplace, I bemoan our reluctance to evolve with our environment, a by-product of our steadfast belief that we need to teach the new class how to manage using our tried and true methods.

boomer millennialBut they will never need to know how to manage in the ways we did in 2001 because those days are gone. We can only reference past decades as history and fodder for learning rather than a template for how to approach our future.  To us, Millennials are unfocused and fidgety; to them, we are obsolete thinkers who must be tolerated until removed from power, assuming they have the patience. In them, Millennials hold the DNA of how business will be done and work cultures will be rebuilt. If we fail to look at them as carriers of insight versus vessels for our teaching, we will continue to miss out on all they have to show us, not the least of which being the following:

Millennials are a live peek into the future.

In fairness, for that statement to be a big deal you have to first care passionately about the future…and not all leaders do.

Here’s a tip for younger professionals who are interviewing in bigger companies. If you’re speaking with my generation and have any concern about how progressive the leadership is, pose any of these questions to anyone in my cohort you come across:

  • How do you see your marketplace changing in the next 5-10 years?
  • How do you see technology transforming how we work?
  • How do you see work culture changing as new generations enter the marketplace?

My expectation is you will be less than impressed with the majority of what you hear back. Take that as a sign. Me, I think about this stuff all day. I’m even occasionally challenged to stay in the moment because I want to race to 2020. That’s a whole other issue…

For marketers especially, the workplace is a proxy for the general market to examine how we learn, share, and influence others. They live on the edge – the leading edge! – of how consumer behavior dynamics progress. Start thinking now about how you can incorporate these real-time observations into new marketing programs, not to mention internal process flows and cultural habits.

One habit I established a few years ago was to network and maintain contact with young professionals. You would as I am be both fascinated and impressed by the limitless boundaries of their thinking, if you can even momentarily suppress the tendency to judge them for not thinking the way you do. Me, I shamelessly refer to many as mentors.

 Millennials can teach you about technology.

And these new mentors I have show me tons of stuff; they are examples of the personal googles I have written about who can show me trends before they are #trends. I’m naturally curious guy when it comes to technology but I’m also a marketer. So I start with social media. Facebook was all the rage with the kids up until a few years ago but they have migrated to other platforms, leaving behind families, business associates, companies and desperate housewives. Facebook will survive, but new platforms emerge on the regular; the Millennial crowd ignites the interest. I don’t creep them or attempt to invade their new social landscapes, but rather look for insights on how the experience better suits their needs…aside from freeing them from undesirable followers. There are social learnings to be had in addition to marketing.

Apps and web sites are my next targets. Media companies provide more data than rich, experience-based insight. My marketing programs can only create more impact if I understand not only where consumers or influencers spend their time but more importantly why and how they engage.

And lastly, because they have had technology at their fingertips for over half of their lives, they have come to depend on constant introductions of new digital tools to improve an experience by making it faster, easier or just plain fun to use. Continuous improvement is a mindset that could be translated into improved work communication flows or productivity systems if you tap them to make recommendations for the workplace. Our generation likes to build, perfect and maintain. I love this article from famed Swedish creativity speaker Fredrik Haren. He laughs at how innovative we think we are, yet he cheekily notes that only the U.S. pays him by check for his service. Of course he pushes the knife in another few inches by reminding us that check writing is 17th century technology. We’re completely unaware of how intently we latch on to things – to ways of doing things – and how little appetite we have to innovate at times.

Millennials are productive.

Which leads me to this.

Yes, they are.

Millennials are incredibly efficient in how they relate to information and how they use their time in particular.

Smart phones. Google. Information is now on-demand…or should be on demand. That’s how they work. They have thin-client minds that are not filled up with gigs of info that they need to commit to memory for easy access, like, whenever. That’s inefficient. Nope, when they want something, they just look it up. And the fact they can’t always operate this way at work is a gross disconnect.

What do those of us in big orgs do by comparison? We gather 20 people into large conference rooms and read 100 pages of power point to them over the course of two hours. Why? Because we think it’s important, so we need to focus, soak it in, and memorize.

And when someone starts looking at their phone or God help them begins to type, we go nuts. What we fail to realize in our indignation is that what we’re talking about is actually not important. What’s important to the new generation is a function of relevancy and timeliness, and I appeal to companies to have more respect for time – and timing – in a post on culture strategies.  Just show them what it is and there it’s archived and they’ll think more deeply about it when they need to. If you push them to focus or marinate in information that is not current to them, they’ll play ball for awhile, but then ultimately look for ways to fill up their time with something more pressing.

I totally get that new generations are adept at driving high ROI on each moment of their day. I tell students when I present to them to do what they do so long as they aren’t disruptive. I often talk on several subjects, so I encourage them to freely but quietly text plans to friends for the night or do some prelim research for a paper that’s coming due while I’m up there yakking. Do it, if what I’m talking about at that moment is just not relevant to your life at that moment. I get it. I understand that when I’m presenting it’s about them and not me; and, as I have seen, when I do hit topics or points that are relevant, they immediately become attentive. So, I roll with it.

Let me say it another way. The insight behind the burgeoning sharing economy is that there are assets everywhere that are underutilized. We are now learning to capitalize on those gap instances where those assets are unproductive. Millennials are ahead of the game, teaching us to now do it with time!

Millennials can teach you to juggle relationships.

This notion of living in moments also applies to relationships.

During quiet moments with my family I’ll whip out my phone and jump on social media. Naturally I’ll at some point get called out for my infatuation with technology (we’ll forget for a second that we’re sitting in front of the TV as we socialize while dad pulls the paper out to cruise through it). I point out in my glass is half full way that while they only have 3 sets of friends, I have hundreds…and I am nurturing those relationships with the aid of this device. I was surprised to understand that my parents didn’t think that I could have ongoing ‘relationships’ with a global flock of peeps that I truly see as friends. New concept for them, having no footprint in social media.

But the scope of socializing isn’t the biggest whoop. It’s the seamless way they customize their interactions to optimize the time spent, driving high ROI out of connections.

Consider telephone conversations. I talk to my parents, brothers and sisters on my cell because, well it just seems to be the right thing to do…and they are the closest people to me, so they should get the VIP treatment. I feel the need to talk for at least 30 minutes (I get flack if I cut it short) yet in several instances I find myself looking for new topics to cover. Sometimes I get lucky and a topic percolates for a good chunk of time.

Millennials on the other hand deal as I said in moments instead of these large tranches of time commitments dotted with dead air. Texts are moments. Instagram and Snapchat posts are moments. Moments are fleeting but they have impact. They return strong value per key stroke because of their timeliness. And while we think they replace live contact they instead supplement it. Just like while we watch a series on TV, we’ll catch an episode on Netflix on our iPad when we’re on the go; we seamlessly deploy the right media to match that momentary need. Technology and contemporary communication styles are now tools to perpetuate relationships by making them less dependent on old metrics of time spent or optimal engagement setting. We can be present and meaningful in each other’s lives with even the simplest distant ping.

I will tie this thinking to the domain of professional relationships in my next post to give it more time and space. I will present some similar truths about how relationships are formed, sealed and maintained while sharing what that could mean going forward.

Millennials can teach us to be accepting of others.

They are more diversity-friendly than we tend to be.

In my article on culture strategies I include a section on the need to embrace diversity. I argue that the most diverse environments tend to be the more creative ones. Yet, we relentlessly, even subconsciously isolate people who are the least bit different in how they look, think or speak and we make them feel like outliers. And then we ask them to stick their neck out by championing their crazy ideas. Sigh.

Millennials care less if you have blue nail polish, dreads or speak with an accent. Such things don’t stand out to them and as such they contribute to the formation of an inclusive, upbeat and creative environment.

Millennials can teach you to love your job.

And in so doing they break the model. You know the one, where you stay in your first job out of college, put your head down, shut up, work hard, suck up the abuse and retire at 55 with a paid mortgage, a pension, and powerful regrets?

Well that American dream no longer exists. Companies rush through their life cycles, growing then downsizing with force, pensions and benefits are disappearing and if you live in a bigger center like the Bay area, Toronto, New York or Vancouver, you can forget about getting on the property ladder.

So, if you have to work insane hours with fading prospects for wealth and security, and you are fundamentally a positive person, what do you? You seek enjoyment in your work, that’s what you do. Our careers are less of a means to an end than what they were in the past, so they drive much more of our happiness.

And the coming classes look to bring more to their roles than business results, efficiency and the environment of inclusion discussed earlier. They will want to blur lines between work and play, explore their passions, create relationships in more informal ways and bring that mindset of continuous improvement. They will find innovative, technology-based ways to shift focus away from the meaningless stuff to spend time on that which is more inspiring. They use all the tools in the toolbox, much like the five pillars of job satisfaction I have outlined in a recent post. If you let them, they can make you both productive AND positive.

Millennials can show you the benefits of coaching.

They love to be coached. They crave it. And they flourish with the feedback.millennials coaching

Cool how that works, hey? You should try it.

In one of my earliest posts about becoming a better boss, I bring up how I manage the employee review process for my direct reports. For all reviews, I alert each team member to come prepared to their performance review with feedback for me. I tell them jokingly (#jokingnotjoking) they are not allowed to leave the room without giving me 2 leadership habits to continue doing because they are effective and 2 to start doing or improve on. It not only helps them practice giving feedback but guess what, it makes me a better leader. I owe about 25% of the great things I do to the feedback I asked for.

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So to my aging contemporaries, I ask you to press pause before you criticize young professionals for being something other than what you are. No, they are not perfect, but that shouldn’t prevent you from being inspired by them. Our market and consumer is evolving in how it thinks and behaves, and if we can only do more listening and observing, we can influence a parallel transition of our strategies, systems and culture.

If you’ve decided I’m somehow misguided in how I think let me leave you with this. Millennials now make up about half the workforce. What that means is that we will be drawing from this pool as we search for the best and brightest talent out there. And, to attract and retain them, we’ll need to re-imagine all aspects of our workplace to better suit their habits and interests.

And, if that isn’t enough, then consider that in probably five years, most of us will be working for a Millennial. Yes, those square pegs you’ve been trying to fit into round holes will become our leaders who will be setting the tone and calling the shots. And where will that leave you?  Somewhere out of the picture and the subject of new articles on how Boomers and Gen Xers could be more valuable to organizations if they could only be taught to adapt. If you haven’t, I’d think about starting that process now.

millennials boomers

ADDITIONAL READING

Check out this post by the LinkedIn CEO, citing how the company drives meeting productivity. They do as I have recommended: they have eliminated presentations — something I have always pointed to as a poor use of time. They sensibly using meeting time to debate, decide and craft a path forward…not to read to each other. Love it!

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