Small Business

Communicating with Twentysomethings


Here are five ways to successfully engage with Gen Y, whose members want to add meaning to their lives and to the world

Gen Y is gaining attention (BusinessWeek.com, 1/9/08) for its participation in the 2008 Presidential primaries, voting in numbers not seen in decades. But the group's influence obviously isn't limited to politics. Some 30 million young people in their late teens to early 30s are expected to join the U.S. workforce by 2010. Effectively communicating with them will be crucial to your company's success.

Empowerment is what young people crave. I have spent the last two years interviewing dozens of business leaders who run companies that rely on employees in their teens and 20s. To a person, these leaders have learned that it's important to offer young people more than a paycheck and a free on-site massage. This group wants to know that its work is adding up to a great cause. They want to add meaning to their lives and to the world. The old command-and-control style of managing won't work with this generation. Lip service won't fly.

I've distilled five ways to engage them.

1. Don't manage, mentor. Jason Adelson, co-founder of the popular news gathering site Digg, says young employees have high expectations for themselves and their managers. Members of this group want to work for highly engaged managers who help them grow and develop their professional skills. "Younger workers are transforming the workplace from the get-rich-quick attitude of the '90s to a culture of empowerment and contribution," Adelson told me. "At the end of the day, these employees want to feel as if they are part of something extraordinary, and, more important, have contributed to its achievement."

While your primary goal might be to get projects accomplished on time and on budget, young people want to learn from you. Allocate more of your time to developing staff. Ask your younger employees about their goals and career ambitions. Is their position helping them achieve those dreams? If not, it is a manager's responsibility to help employees find the right roles where they have the best chance of success.

2. Don't assign, explain. Cold Stone Creamery is one of the largest franchises in the U.S. What sets it apart from other ice cream chains is simple. When customers throw a tip in the jar, employees sing a song. While the chain offers high-quality ice cream, its attraction is the experience. Most of its employees are teenagers. When I spoke to leadership at Cold Stone, they acknowledged that a 16-year-old doesn't dream of scooping ice cream into her 30s. The Cold Stone approach is to encourage them to use the position to learn life skills regardless of their chosen careers. Franchise owners and managers are trained to reinforce the idea that Cold Stone is "the best first job" they could ever have. Assignments don't work with Gen Y unless there's a reason behind them.

3. Don't dictate, solicit. Google's (GOOG) Marisa Mayer studied computer science at Stanford and brought an idea from academia to her new position: office hours. For 90 minutes each day beginning at 4 p.m., her staff can sign a sheet outside her office for a 15-minute impromptu meeting. At these meetings (BusinessWeek.com, 9/27/06), staffers voice opinions or pitch new ideas.

Mayer says some of Google's most innovative features have come from these office hours. Although these employees may have spent only a few minutes with Mayer, they leave knowing they have been heard and that their opinions matter.

4. Don't ignore, respond. Recently a reporter from the Newark (N.J.) newspaper The Star-Ledger asked me to talk about New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin. Coughlin had come close to being fired early in the season but ultimately led his players to a Super Bowl upset victory over the undefeated New England Patriots. How did Coughlin turn everything around? He did something that is absolutely critical to get buy-in from young people: He empowered them and made them feel as though they were part of the building process.

Instead of ignoring the criticism leveled against him, Coughlin began to talk to his players with no clipboard and no agenda—just to listen. He also set up a council of veteran players to improve communication and to bring issues to his attention. According to defensive player Michael Strahan, Coughlin "adjusted" to his team by making them part of the decision-making process.

5. Don't conceal, communicate. Young people in business today crave feedback and interaction with their peers and managers, more so than previous generations did. When researchers at professional staffing firm Hudson (HHGP) conducted a survey of 2,000 employees, they found striking differences between generations in their attitudes toward their bosses and co-workers. Twenty-five percent of workers who fall into the Gen Y category consider it important to get feedback from their bosses at least once a week. However, only 11% of baby boomers desire that level of communication. Young employees also want greater social interaction with their peers and supervisors. Maintain an open, consistent dialogue and you will win their loyalty.

Young people fall into a category I call the "EmpowerME Generation" because that is exactly what they are asking from their employers—to be empowered. The 2008 election is proving that young people can be engaged when they feel as though they are making a difference. The same holds true in the workplace.

Carmine Gallo, a business communications coach and Emmy-Award winning former TV journalist, is the author of Fire Them Up! and 10 Simple Secrets of the World's Greatest Business Communicators. He writes his communications column every week.

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