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Managing Millennials and Gen Z

Managing Millennials and Gen Z 

I was invited to speak at The Digital Marketing Hub event in Manchester recently. The organisers gave me free rein on what I wanted to speak about. It didn’t take me long to think of the subject matter; managing Millennials and Gen Z.

I have a deep interest in all aspects of leadership and management, but this is a subject that interests me for 3 reasons:

1. Personal Experience – I ran my own agency for 15 years and grew it to 175 staff. I learned a great deal about managing and leading people. I also learned was that no matter how much insight and experience you gain, the challenge of managing people is never finished. Its a game with no end as the rules are constantly shifting and evolving.

As I got older, naturally the age gap between myself and our younger team members grew wider. It was clear that the younger members of our team had different attitudes and wanted different things than I did. They needed to be managed, motivated and led differently. Of course, in hindsight, I made mistakes when I was managing people. Nothing serious, but there are certain things I could have done differently.  I was certainly influenced by the negative stereotyping that Millennials are plagued with.

2. Sector Challenges – One of the biggest challenges facing the agency sector is recruiting and retaining talent (of all ages). Young people, in particular, have far more choices and are in more demand than ever. How can you hope to recruit and retain people if you can’t manage them effectively in the way that they want to be managed? Beer fridges and ping pong tables are nice, but they’re not the answer to getting the most out of our young people (or them getting the most out of us as agency owners). 

3. My Clients – My agency clients frequently point to managing Millennials as a source of frustration. This applies to agency owners of a similar age to me as well as directors who are Millennials themselves. Usually, my agency clients are not concerned with how problematic it is for them. They genuinely want to understand more and upskill themselves to provide a better agency for their younger people to work in. 

The Generation Game

The exact dates of when “generations” start and end are often disputed. The figures below seem to represent a consensus. It can be useful to split Gen Y (Millennials) into 2 groups. Millennials have experienced such a volume of change in their lifetimes. The attitudes of older and younger members of Gen Y can vary significantly. People currently in their 30’s have different attitudes to those currently in their 20’s. This has been shaped by the sheer velocity of technological advancement. The recession of 2008 was also a big influence.

When I researched this article, I’m not sure which of these facts came as more of a shock…

The fact that, at 48, I’m an “older” member of Gen X?

The thought that Millennials can actually be as old as 38 years of age (not that I consider that old)?  

The revelation that Millennials already represent around 50% of the UK workforce. 

The realisation that older members of Gen Z have either already started their careers or will soon be leaving University?

Myths and Stereotypes

Given the age profile of Millennials its surprising that you often still hear people referring to them as young people. Even more surprising is the amount of myths and negative stereotypes that are still following this group around.

If you Google Millennials, the content is skewed towards negative sentiment. The “WE Generation”, the “Me Me Me Generation” are some of the labels they attract. Indeed, Millennials are accused online of killing everything from doorbells to entire industries (N.B. as a parent of Gen Zers,  I can bear witness to the redundant doorbell in my own home).

The traits of today’s younger generations are often called into question. They’re accused of being lazy, entitled, self-obsessed narcissists who lack loyalty and will hop from job to job without a moments thought. Despite the fact that many of these myths have been debunked by studies such as The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey, the stereotypes seem to linger.

Ultimately its a fact of life that older generations complain about the young. Even Peter the Hermit (born circa 1050) is said to have griped that young people “think of nothing but themselves”. Before you ask, no I didn’t know Peter!

Whatever the reasons, Managing Millennials and Gen Z employees is seen as a difficult task and remains a hot topic of conversation.

Breakfast anyone?

When my agency clients ask me how they can improve managing younger members of their team, my answer often surprises them; stop managing them(!) 

Young people don’t want to be managed (at least not in the way my generation did when we were at the early stage of our careers). Millennials want to be in an environment where they can thrive. The environment might be augmented by physical things such as quirky furniture, ping pong tables and the like, but its the company culture that really makes the difference.

Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. This is something I’ve used to guide me throughout my career. His principle point that your people really make the difference, is particularly true for agencies.  Drucker died in 2005, but I’m sure if he was around today he would view the right culture as being paramount for motivating, nurturing and getting the best from young people in the workplace.

Company culture is a huge topic in its own right. Culture can’t be defined and created overnight. It’s borne out of the values of the agency (which are themselves heavily influenced by the values of the leaders of the business). Its effects are more wide-ranging and far-reaching than just the impact it may have on younger workers.

I’ve identified 4 key factors for agency owners to focus on in order to develop their culture in the right direction. This will enable the culture of the agency to support and influence how its younger team members interact, grow and perform.

INSPIRATION

Today’s young people want to be inspired. They want to work for a business with a purpose beyond just making money. A purpose, not just a profit motive.

If you and your agency want to leave a mark on the world, this will be attractive to young people. They want to do the same. Your ability to convey the purpose behind your agency in simple clear language will not only be engaging and inspiring to your team members. The purpose (or WHY) is a vital part of your Customer Value Proposition and crucial to winning new business.

A word of warning; your purpose must be AUTHENTIC. Millennials and their younger counterparts hate hypocrisy. The mission must be genuine AND be at the heart of the agency.

Millennials don’t want to be managed, they want to follow inspirational leaders and be guided, coached and mentored by them. 

TRANSPARENCY

Today’s young people have grown up with more easy access to information than ever before. I remember having to wait in the University library for the right textbook to be returned! Millennials have no concept of this.

Younger workers need information like oxygen. It’s like fuel to them. They also demand the ability to see behind the scenes of what they are interested in. They use social media to view their favourite celebrities at home etc. This, combined with a more ethical and stronger stance on business with a purpose, makes transparency a vital ingredient to Millennial culture.

You can’t share every piece of information with your team but share as much as you can. When they understand what you are trying to achieve they will be far more likely to want to help you achieve it.

Millennials want progression. They want to see what is possible for them to achieve and understand the steps they have to take to achieve it. 

I’ve learned you can’t over-communicate with Millennials. The more information you give them, the more they will want. It can be quite challenging at times, but its a mindset of a generation and its not going to change.

Despite being digital natives, I find younger people respond well to face to face communication from their leaders. I think this in-person communication is something that some agency owners have started to overlook and feel is not relevant in the age of Slack etc. They are wrong.

Admitting mistakes and showing a degree of vulnerability is not something that features in many management textbooks. Whilst nobody wants mistakes, encouraging people to be open about them provides learning opportunities. Crucially, if you as an agency leader are prepared to open up about the fact you don’t always get things right, then this creates the sort of human connection Millennials crave. Despite being surrounded by technology (or maybe even because of it), they value human relationships with their colleagues more than ever before.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Millennials and Gen Z people need to be heard. They need to feel like they have influence and are using it. Once again, technology plays a part here. The ability to publish to the world online is something young people are predisposed to do.

Gen Y & Z are generations that have been lavished with praise, recognition and awards for achievement since childhood. From the classroom to video games, badges of achievement have been bestowed upon them.

 

With this background, it’s not surprising that younger colleagues expect to have a voice, as well as regular feedback and praise. Like information, you simply cannot give enough praise, acknowledgement and feedback when managing Millenials and Gen Z people. As if this wasn’t enough, it’s very important that it’s delivered in a timely fashion. The more that you communicate in person the better. Don’t just tell them they did a good job, tell them why it was such a good job and why it made a difference or impressed you! Make sure they’re seen as the heroes and they get the credit where it’s due.

A few words of caution. Studies show that Millennials as a generation prefer more public recognition than their older colleagues. However, the old adage of praise in public, reprimand in private still holds true.

It should also be remembered that people are individuals. If you have a young Millennial in the agency who is quite introverted, your idea to present them with a bottle of Champagne in a company meeting using a song you’ve written just for them, might not go down as well as you expect!

AUTONOMY

Millennials crave autonomy. They’re a generation that is full of self-belief. They want responsibility early and the flexibility to achieve goals how they want to achieve them. This means you must give them latitude and not try and turn them into clones of yourself or other members of the team.

What worked well in the past might still work well today, but Gen Y and Gen Z are focused on putting their mark on something (not slavishly following rules).

As a business owner though, of course, it’s only right that you want some control. You need to give them autonomy but within a framework. In order to achieve this its best to set boundaries or guidelines rather than rules. I describe it as ten pin bowling with those child-friendly rails up. Let people bowl how they want, but show them where the outlying barriers are (and have some checks in place to stop them crashing into them if you can).

Younger staff members are more entrepreneurial than their predecessors. Many of them have grown up in the Gig economy. They don’t understand the concept of working for a company all your life. They want to grow and develop. They want to follow and explore their passions. As an agency owner, at the very least you should encourage this spirit. Allow people to research and explore their other interests. Support people with their external learning and/or side hustles. Give them either time or resources – or both – if you can.

Last but not least, the world of work is changing. 9 to 5 office hours are not the norm they once were. Millennials and Gen Z don’t live to work, they work to live. They’re more comfortable with working from home and at hours to suit them.

You must think productivity rather than presence in the office here. The more flexibility you can embrace around hours and working patterns the more attractive an employer you will become. That said, this is one of the most challenging aspects of managing Millennials and Gen Z employees. Agency businesses are fluid and priorities are forever changing. For most agencies, this needs to be a transition and not a blind leap of faith.  

Don’t manage, motivate.

Clearly there are a lot of things to consider when managing Millennials and Gen Z people. It’s vital that you focus on creating a culture they can thrive in rather than trying to manage them to closely.

When it comes to Gen Y and Gen Z, culture may eat strategy for breakfast, but it eats traditional managers and outdated thinking for lunch.

Gareth Healey
Gareth is the founder of Beyond Noise. He has 25 years experience in the agency sector. A business coach and mentor, he works exclusively with ambitious owner-directors of established independent marketing agencies.
Managing Millennials and Gen Z
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