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Leading Millennials in the 21st Century: What will it take?

1“Shallow,” “multi-taskers,” “spoiled,” “entitled” and “No respect for the boss” are just a few of the adjectives and descriptive phrases some senior executives in the federal government attribute to the group dubbed the “Millennials,” also known as “Gen Y.” This cohort is generally represented by those born at the beginning of the 1980s and continue through the early part of the decade marking the millennial (2000), give or take a few years plus or minus on either side. They are the largest generation since the Baby Boomers (those born in the forties and fifties) and comprise 70 million of today’s population, ranging in age from puberty to their early thirties. Given the size of this future labor market, Millennials are a force to be reckoned with and, given their youthful age, must be accepted as here to stay.

The anxious discussions, debates and distress that senior executives have concerning Millennials in the workforce often begin with the acknowledgement that these new employees are part of a “multi-generational workforce.” A thoroughly detailed description of what such a workforce looks like can be found in Susan Hannam’s and Bonni Yordi’s “Transforming the Workforce Series. ” In their report “Engaging a Multi-Generational Workforce: Practical for Government Managers,” Hannam and Yordi provide a clear delineation of the different generational characteristics and how they affect working styles; they also discuss several trends they predict will transform the workplace as we know it today thereby challenging managers and leaders. One is the infusion of a new breed of human talent who bring with them different attitudes, work ethics and approaches to career development. The shifts in organizational culture, which may encompass work schedule, training, work assignments, work styles and reward structures demand that organizations develop new ways of thinking about employees and that senior executives adopt new ways of managing/leading a multi-generational organizational culture that is effective at bringing new talent into the fold.

Hannam and Yordi assert that as organizations prepare for the coming generational shift, they need to take full advantage of the knowledge of their experienced workers, while at the same time rethinking old paradigms about what work is and how it gets done. …A major challenge for today’s Traditionalist and Baby Boomer managers is to figure out how to develop younger workers into tomorrow’s managers under a new model. (my emphasis)

And, time is running out. Most federal agencies anticipate a rapid turnover in the next decade, if the data from some of the recent polls and surveys are correct. In that time, the majority of Baby Boomers working in federal services will retire and leave a “human capital crisis” according to the briefing, “Minding the Leadership Gap: Attracting Millennials to the Federal Government.” Why bother? Because the sun is setting for the current Baby Boomer federal employees and the next largest group of potential federal government employees, the Millennials, who should replace them, don’t want to work in the federal government.

2Federal Employment is No “Field of Dreams” for Gen Y
In the movie, “Field of Dreams,” Kevin Costner is told by an angel that if he builds a baseball field in the middle of his cornfields, he will get the audience he needs. His field of dreams materializes—he builds it and they do come.

But that’s the movies. In the real world, the huge cohort of future talent known as Gen Y does not view federal service as its field of dreams. They are not drawn to it; as a result, federal agencies in the future may find themselves challenged by the lack of an adequate pool of human talent from which to hire. The myth of the never-ending supply of potential federal employees is vanishing because while the Millennials may value public service and are committed to serving their communities locally and globally, they do not view government as the “go to” place for jobs.

The Atlantic writer Ron Fournier drives this point home in his provocatively titled article, “The Outsiders: How Can Millennials Change Washington If They Hate It?” (Aug 26, 2013). Using the results of an extensive survey, Fournier describes a serious disconnect between the future needs of the federal government for employees and the lack of desire among Gen Y’s to become civil servants. Referencing the results of a Harvard study on Gen Y attitudes, Fournier points out that today, “…Millennials are increasingly negative and cynical about the political process.” He goes on to illustrate the depths of the Millennials’ disappointment with Washington, D.C. and federal government service:

How deep is the disengagement? I spent two days at Harvard, and couldn’t find a single student whose career goal is Washington or elective office. One wouldn’t expect to hear this at the Kennedy School of Government. ‘Government and politics,” said graduate student Sara Estill, ‘hold little or no attraction for us.’

This disenchantment with federal service is not due to the absence of civic commitment. According to Fournier, this generation of “Millennials have an outsized sense of purpose.” In fact, he cites a 2009 report by The National Conference on Citizenship that says the Millennials “…lead the way in volunteering.” Almost half (or 43 percent) have engaged in some form of volunteer work in contrast to the Baby Boomers with only 35 percent.

The Pew Research ‘Foundation’s extensive report “Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next,” draws some of the same conclusions. Gen Ys are not disengaged with their role as civic-minded individuals; in fact, they may be more involved than previous generations at the same age. However, they are not convinced that government offers any solutions and have recovered from their political crush on President Barack Obama, whose success can be attributed to the large Millennial voter turnout that the Obama campaign effectively tapped through the use of technology and social media. The Millennial perspective of some who churn employment in the government can be summed up in the words of Chike Aguh, a Kennedy School graduate student interviewed by Fournier: “Politics just doesn’t seem …[relevant] to a lot of us and the world. Since the Great Society, tell me one big thing that has come out of Washington. Results are important to us, and sadly, politics isn’t a place for results.”

3“Beam Me Up Scotty”: Managing and Leading Millennials in a Post-Star Trek Age
For those brave Millennial souls who do venture into federal service, they may find themselves encountering organizational cultures unable and unwilling to accommodate or adapt to their learning and work styles; such places often are not just resistant, but sometimes frustrated and even hostile to the Millennial vision of work. On the flip side, to Gen Ys who are hired into federal agencies with layers of bureaucracy, regulations and policies and success measured through levels of competencies, it may seem to them as if they were beamed into a time warp. One IT federal executive described providing a new Gen Y employee with what he viewed as the agency’s state of the art computer equipment. He was caught off guard by the Gen Y’s response of incredulity: “This is what we used in elementary school.”

Government offices often lag behind corporate culture in their purchase and use of technology hardware and software; moreover, in a tight fiscal environment, it is difficult to justify upgrading when old equipment and software are in working order and seem perfectly adequate, if somewhat slow. But in the eyes of the Gen Ys, such decisions border on heretical. They have grown up, since they were old enough to touch the screen of an iPhone or type on a computer, in a disposable technological culture where cell phones are traded annually for upgrades as the equipment and software changes, where computers have a life span of three years tops, and where they possess the latest mobile devices (phones, iPads, iPods, tablets and Androids), and where they have possession of apps and software almost immediately after it is released to the general market, if not before. Millennials are immediately attuned to the fact that there is a disconnect between the advanced technological skills they have honed since they were in diapers and the expectations in government that they can successfully perform with outmoded and slow technology.

The brave few who manage to hang in there (government service) long enough to learn a little bit of something do so with an eye towards looking for the next place to land. For Millennials, their motto is if the job isn’t working for them, they are prepared to “beam up” (and they do expect increased professional mobility) to another job. The ease with which Millennials are able to leave one job for another is construed by career civil servants as further proof of Millennials’ unrealistic sense of “entitlement,” their “shallowness” and the absence of what senior executives view as an appropriate “work ethic.”

4You Say Values, I Say Values –Do They Mean the Same Thing?
The “values conflict” between the work ethic of the Millennials’ and the current work ethic of Boomer supervisors is a serious one. To agencies and organizations accustomed to employees like themselves (who are Boomers) and their predecessors “The Silent Generation” of the Boomers’ parents who have put in decades of service in the same agency, Gen Y employees who jump ship after one year or two of work may appear not just “flighty” but “ungrateful” and insincere. But, if the surveys are right, Gen Ys have strong ethics, are more diverse than any other generation, are comfortable with diversity and inclusion, have high (and some would argue too high) expectations for their jobs and are “…optimistic and driven to change.” Where the signals seemed to get crossed is that for those generations prior to Gen Y (and possibly Gen X), work defined the person. The most recent generations see work as a means to an end but not the end to itself. And, they are attracted to working in teams rather than sitting in cubicles like silos left to do their own thing.

5Culture Clash
A cartoon by Franko entitled “One Stop” shows two Gen Ys with a manager and a progress chart entitled “Youth Success Chart.” There are four columns labeled horizontally as “Plan,” “Skills,” “Work,” and “$$$.” The two Gen Ys have a line on the chart showing a rapid progression up the scale from Plan to $$$. The caption (spoken by the Boomer manager) reads “Let me see if I got this right. You want to skip all the steps and just go straight for the money?” This expectation of Gen Y that they can skip steps is one of the first clashes that occur between those in charge and Millennial employees. In a briefing entitled “Minding the Leadership Gap: Attracting Millennials to the Federal Government,” the Government Business Council describes “Achievement-oriented” as one of the characteristics of the Millennials. They elaborate that

…Many of this generation were raised under hovering ‘helicopter parents’ who gave them constant attention and pressure to succeed. Millennial want to feel like they’ve made a difference in a relatively short period of time. Most do not see their first job as a long term commitment and many plan to change careers, or at least jobs, several times throughout their lives.

Thus, the Millennial work schedule in the federal service and the short duration of their stay must seem completely alien to those (Boomers and before) who are accustomed to a culture where the profile of the average “federal civilian non-seasonal full-time employee” looks like this:

• 47 years old
• 13.7 years for length of service
• 66% white
• 48% have Bachelor’s degree or higher
• 56.4% men and 43.6% women….

Millennials are entering a cultural complex of mostly men (white) who are almost fifty years old and have spent over a decade of their lives in service to the federal government and generally in the same agency. Gen Ys are as lost and alien as the 1984 Science Fiction movie character in “Brother from another Planet.” He resembles the people he encounters (on the alien planet of Earth) to some extent but they can’t understand him and he is confused by what he sees. Like the “Brother…,” Millennials also struggle to express themselves and adjust to the new surroundings of the federal government work environment.

6Paradigm Shift: Leading Millennials vs. Managing Them
Listening to the laments of some senior executives about Millennials, one would imagine that the walls of federal agencies are about to tumble down as Gen Ys’ visit their own brand of work chaos onto the federal civil service.

But a few senior executives truly understand what’s at stake— they recognize that they have a new breed of employee and must embrace the diversity and change that accompanies them. Such executives are able to step outside of their own subjective discomfort and commitment to the status quo to clearly see “No” as the only viable response to the pivotal question Hannam and Yordi pose in their report:

…Do we want our legacy to be of mentoring and empowering the next generations, or of fighting them tooth and nail?’ Organizations that embrace generational differences in values, ways of getting things done, and ways of communicating will thrive.

Those who chose the latter and embrace change do so because they see value. These are leaders who understand that “…the digital-savvy Millennials has the potential to change the face of work to be more collaborative, to use virtual teams, to use social media, and to offer more flexible work hours.” Hannam and Yordi cite The Human Capital Institute that makes clear the old way of doing business in the federal government will not work:

The homogenous human capital model of the past simply will not work with such diverse cohorts in the workforce…It is time to throw out the one-size-fits-all model of talent management and embrace a more flexible model.

And there is value in embracing a more flexible model of talent management. Yet, there are many senior executives and managers who see the Millennials as “unrealistic” and utterly lacking in their failure to understand that “Government doesn’t work like that. ” They believe that incoming new workers have a strong “disconnect between their economic vision and their work ethic” meaning the Millennials expect to be rewarded before they’ve contributed their sweat equity and paid the proverbial dues.

In contrast, there are other senior executives who can see the shape of a new tunnel and the light shining at the end of it. These leaders are transformational in their perspective and thinking. They are able to push their subjective feelings aside and objectively adopt a new paradigm—one that embraces the Millennial work force. In the new paradigm, they see possibilities in those Gen Y employees who expect economic rewards rapidly and fast results in their professional career mobility. They have encountered those Millennials who are as hardworking and bring a new “entrepreneurial spirit” to government service.

Like the Apple ad, these leaders recognize genius when they see it. They understand that the Millennials “think different” and are the “crazy ones” who can make things happen in federal service:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. …Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

The Millennials cannot be ignored and “leading” them will require a new leadership paradigm. It is one in which leadership is a risk-taking venture and is ideational and visionary in being able to look ahead and spot the youthful talent that will move the organization to that futuristic point. In contrast, those preoccupied with “managing” Millennials will always be obsessed with how to make them fit their round character and work style into the status quo square pegs; they will insist that Gen Ys simply follow the rules that most [who have been there for decades] know carry little meaning beyond the fact that they exist.

To lead Millennials requires recognition of what they bring to the table: creativity, fearlessness, technological savvy, quick turnarounds, and comfort level with collaborative work environments. They are also highly mobile and agencies must be prepared to let them go when the time comes. Leaders must also be innovative about the type of reward structure they provide along with mastering social media as ways of communicating beyond face-to-face contact. And they have to accept the reality that the Millennials thrive on constant and instant feedback. If they didn’t get it right, let them know, but don’t assume they didn’t get it right because they didn’t follow the usual process. Wait for the outcome but like any good leader, provide the necessary guidance and mentoring at the appropriate points along the way.

Now does that mean the Millennials don’t need guidance? To the contrary, even as one is changing the course of a river, you still have to swim in the current direction. And so Millennials do need mentoring; some senior executives recommend providing them with an historical orientation of the agency and of the federal service. It cannot be assumed that they learned these lessons in civics classes. Nor, should the telling of the history be a tactic to get them to conform to the organization’s cultural norms. Millennials also must learn the soft skills of professional development – how to code switch in dress and speech, when the situation demands it.

And organizations must invest in the development of Millennial leadership sooner rather than later. According to Jack Zenger in his Harvard Business Review blog, in every sector around the world, the average age for leaders to participate in leadership training programs was age 42 while the average age of supervisors in the 17,000 companies he surveyed was age 33. He concludes that “we wait too long to train our leaders.”

And, it is quite possible that it will be the Millennials who determine the future direction of the Federal government’s Selective Executive Service. Willing to be mobile, interested in new learning within a short period of time, the Millennials may be the direct line to establishing transformational leadership early. Who says it must take 20 years to become a leader? History doesn’t validate that. Most of the leaders we now admire globally began their leadership journey early in their lives. Thus, if the United States is to keep up with the rapid pace of change, and the local and global challenges and transformations that are affecting the world, then it must have a cadre or esprit de corps of leaders to guide it.

Watch out for the Millennials. Like it or not, they are our next generation of leaders. We can try and hang onto the old ways of doing business kicking and screaming. Or, we can bite the bullet, acknowledge that it’s time and groom Gen Ys to catch the baton while pushing the envelope of federal executive service in new directions and even further than we ever dreamt we could or ever admitted we were willing to do.

© 2015 McClaurin Solutions

irma-mcclaurinIrma McClaurin, a writer and anthropologist is the Culture and Education Editor at Insight News. From May 2013- October 2014, she was a senior faculty member at the Federal Executive Institute, housed in the Center for Leadership Development (https://leadership.opm.gov/index.aspx ), Office of Personnel Management, United States Government. Established by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, FEI ‘s mission is to provide senior executives with leadership education through its residential program. McClaurin also coordinated FEI’s leadership programs for USAID during her final months, which included teaching courses on leadership and resilience and being an Executive Coach.

March 12, 2015
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