Leadership by Geoff Colvin

How to groom Gen Y to take the company reins

December 1, 2011: 10:24 AM ET

Start talking about younger workers, and pretty soon the word "entitled" comes up. But several companies have started programs to help the younger set learn the corporate ropes.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

FORTUNE -- If you want to liven up a group of senior managers, raise the topic of the youngest employees in the workforce. Suddenly, the conversation turns animated, with strong opinions on everything from their flip-flops to their conversational style. "They are always multitasking," managers complain. "And why do they need so much feedback? Can't they just figure it out?"

Sooner or later, the word "entitled" is bound to come up, as executives compare the way they behaved as new workers with the attitudes of the Millennial Generation, those employees born between 1978 and 2000, says Lauren Stiller Rikleen, an inter-generational consultant and author of a new report on Millennial leadership for the Boston College Center for Work and Family.

In a recent poll of 637 working Americans published by consultant Workplace Solutions, 68% said that they felt that Millennials were less motivated to assume responsibilities and produce good work than their older counterparts.

"There's a significant disconnect in the workplace regarding how managers perceive the motivation and work ethic of Millennials," Rikleen says. "But this is much more of a communication gap than a generation gap."

When employers first identified this issue and began talking about dealing with different generations in the workplace, managers could easily have felt that their young employees were too precious to upset with frank talk and had to be handled with kid gloves. But increasingly, companies are expecting both managers and Millennials to compromise on their communication styles and work habits, with a goal of meeting somewhere in the middle.

Organizations are also setting up programs to ensure that Millennials learn how to behave and succeed in the workplace -- all designed on structures familiar to a generation that progressed from preschool playgroups to soccer teams and study groups in college.

See also: 25 Top Companies for Leaders

The Boston College report identifies a number of companies that are designing networks, programs, and training opportunities around the unique characteristics of Generation Y. For instance, Deloitte runs regional Gen Y councils that provide feedback to senior leaders as well as networking opportunities. A recent Deloitte summit brought together all the councils and senior management to focus on bridging communication gaps and creating an online community with resources for the next generation of leaders.

Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) created a group for Millennials, to serve as an educational, professional growth, and networking resource for employees. Sodexo offers an "i-Gen" employee network group for networking, social media training, mentoring opportunities, and career management training, according to the report.

Enterprise-Rent-a-Car has a policy of promoting from within, so it's important for their training programs to offer the structure and feedback that Millennials tend to crave, having lived fully scheduled lives since their diaper days. "We've adapted it to their needs, which is a more structured training environment," says Marie Artim, Enterprise's senior vice president of talent acquisition.

Enterprise has begun to name the specific skills that trainees are acquiring as they master them. If they're learning how to manage a branch's fleet of cars to meet customers' needs, for instance, managers will point out that it's experience with logistics. "We put it into a business context when, on the surface, it may seem like it's just doing your job," she explains.

These initiatives, coupled with education and training on the distinct perspectives that different generations are likely to have, can help managers and Millennials appreciate each other's differences rather than viewing them as obstacles. The commonly repeated stereotypes about Generation Y are often based on misunderstandings, according to Rikleen and other workplace experts.

"They're probably the most misunderstood generation in the history of the world," says Brad Karsh, president of JB Training Solutions in Chicago, whose workshop "Dude, What's My Job?" helps executives understand and better manage Millennials.

See also: Young workers getting hired again

Take the complaint that Millennials feel entitled and are too ambitious, wanting to be given tremendous responsibility early in their careers. Older managers expect younger workers to do their jobs, keep their heads down, and wait for their careers to advance, as they themselves did.

But these young workers have seen their parents laid off from long-time jobs, making any given position seem precarious. Rather than expecting to run the organization from day one, they merely want to start building the skills and experience they'll need to survive in a working world that is more precarious and built on shorter-term stints at each job, says Bruce Tulgan, consultant and author of Not Everyone Gets a Trophy, about how to manage Generation Y.

"They want to make an impact on day one and they want to start building themselves up using the organization's resources," Tulgan says. "They want to build relationships that will help them. They want to learn skills that can help them. They want tangible results with their name on them."

Rachel Moussa, university programs manager for data networking firm Brocade and herself a Millennial, notices more colleges setting more realistic student expectations about how quickly they'll advance. But it's often crucial for the employer or manager to reinforce the importance of experience to moving up the career ladder. "After the first year, they'll say, 'I've mastered everything, what's next?'" says Moussa.

Employers should recognize that Millennials' ambition to advance isn't necessarily based on a desire for a higher salary. Indeed, Rikleen's report cites research on the disconnect between managers who think young employees are motivated by money, versus the workers themselves being driven by the desire to make a difference.

"What they're motivated by is making a contribution, feeling appreciated, and feeling like they're growing and learning," Karsh says.

Managers should explain the reasons behind mundane tasks and how they fit into the organization's mission, he suggests. At the same time, wean Generation Y employees off the need for constant feedback and structure, by encouraging them to bring proposed solutions to their managers, rather than just a list of questions. And if younger generation workers' comments or actions appear arrogant, gently guide them to a more professional approach.

"As managers we need to change our style, but I also firmly believe they need to change their style too," he says.

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About This Author
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Contributor, Fortune

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning Washington D.C.-based journalist specializing in finance, work, and family issues. She has written for publications including the Fiscal Times, Money, MSN, the New York Times, Parade, Slate, USA Today magazines, and the Washington Post Magazine. Previously, she worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service and reported for Bloomberg News in Washington. She began her career in New York at the Bond Buyer, after graduating from Harvard College with an A.B. in physics. She is active in the Asian American Journalists Association and serves as founding co-chair of the AAJA Digital Group.

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