Pete Bigelow

With each generation comes a shift in how to understand the workforce.

It’s often said people are a company’s greatest asset. Similarly, it is “people” who make the difference between corporate success and survival, winning or losing, growth or extinction. Yes, people are important … and oh so frustrating!

I have found three challenges with “people.” First, there's the matter of finding people – or more to the point, finding good people. Second is developing people, specifically, developing them to improve and be better. Finally and most important, provided the first two are accomplished, keeping those people. There is only one common solution to all three issues, and that is understanding people!

Understanding people is an age-old dilemma. So-called experts spend entire careers offering advice on how to understand people of various ages, backgrounds and knowledge levels. Often it appears that just about the time you think you have “people” figured out, a whole new generation comes along and the paradigm shifts, leaving you to start anew.  

For many who have the experience and “maturity” to have achieved leadership positions within their companies, the current generation offers possibly the biggest-ever shift between what employers expect of workers and what workers expect is expected of them. And while this paradigm may be generational, it certainly is not geographical; the challenge of understanding people is truly global.

When I speak with colleagues seeking younger employees for their businesses, the same grousing can be heard, regardless of location or industry. “They don’t show up on time,” or “they want to be the boss before they know what they are doing,” or “they can’t communicate,” or “they do not want to work” are typical observations (read: frustrations). Compared to older workers raised in a different generation, and under different expectations, those observations may be accurate. However, the world changes; this generation has more tools available to them, less desire to work regular hours, greater appreciation of personal time vs. work time, and awareness that they are not going to spend their entire career at one company – or even in one industry.

For those raised in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s – an almost Jurassic era compared to today’s environment – how should the millennials be managed?  

As difficult as it is, we must first accept that to attain the best the current generation offers, we must change. The jobs of old may need to be rethought to attract workers of today. If flexible hours are important to a prospective employee, then maybe the company needs to think about how to implement a flex schedule, where possible, to attract that talent. Instead of on-the-job-training, perhaps a more formal training structure needs to be put in place so workers can learn faster.
Maybe new employees need to be sent to classes where they learn to communicate with paper and pen, and maybe we Jurassic folk need to invest in classes to understand digital communication and social media. Too many managers are incompetent with software such as PowerPoint or common smartphone apps, yet complain about “kids” who cannot speak clearly on a phone or write neatly. Maybe both sides need to understand the other person has a talent they should make the commitment to strive for and learn, because the workplace requires all such abilities to flourish.

If hiring the new generation requires flexibility and admitting that some old ways must change, then effectively developing those people into superior employees requires even more than flexibility; it requires rethinking and separating what is essential to know vs. what once was nice to know. Skills can be taught to and developed by the new workers. But this also means the incumbent generation of managers and mentors must commit to focusing on what’s important and learning new ways to communicate, interrelate and perform their jobs, so new and old can coexist in a common workplace.

Keeping people has always been a challenge but never more so than today. Old-timers resent investing the time to train and develop a new worker only to have them quit once they have learned their job. Yet, the new paradigm is not one of life tenure. Rather, workers today are looking to be challenged – and compensated – not just to hold a job. The burden has shifted; companies today need to move people more frequently and find ways to increase knowledge and responsibility on an ongoing basis.

Compensation needs to be looked at very differently too. Pay and traditional benefits may not be the motivating factor they once were. People today may value time off and flexible work hours over a check in a pay envelope.

We know the challenges. Understanding what needs to be done and by whom is also known. Why, then, are the worker-related challenges and the steps to resolve them so frustrating?  Simple: Because as much as you want the other person to change, it is inevitably you who has to. Whether you are a prospective employee frustrated because interview after interview you are always the “bridesmaid,” or a hiring manager annoyed with the “lousy” talent your HR department keeps sending in for interviews, the common frustration stems from one party expecting another to change.

If we individually as business leaders or collectively as an industry are going to attract new talent from the next generation, we need to look at how we present our businesses, whether we are open to change, and whether we understand the strengths (and weaknesses) of today’s prospective employees. The people paradigm has once again shifted. Now is the time for us all to rethink how we will approach the newest generation.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (imipcb.com); pbigelow@imipcb.com. His column appears monthly.

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