I’m a baby boomer boss managing millennials

My partner and I founded a Branding and Design agency 3 years ago called Hitchcock Michalski. I am the Client Partner and MD, I’m a baby boomer and my creative partner is a Gen X. My partner is energised by young creative talent and thinking, which is rather fortunate considering the fact that more experienced designers expect salaries that no small start-up can afford, many not matching their talent with their salary expectation. As the client service component of the partnership, I am faced with the scenario of not being able to afford client service people who have been in the industry for 15 – 20 years. Whilst many good client service people have defected to the client side, old hands at the job can often be cynical, burnt out and not open to change. The first two characteristics I see often in myself. I do work hard to manage them, primarily by being a strong advocate of change and working hard to remain relevant in an industry that is changing and evolving, and in so doing, keeping myself inspired and energised. The outcome of the above, is that millennials are the generation that increasingly are becoming the generation of choice when hiring. So is this a good or a bad thing?

My partner, although Gen X, has proven to be an excellent leader of millennials. Being creative and eccentric, he thrives on their dynamic, high energy, ‘full of ideas’ enthusiasm. It is myself, a baby boomer, who has perhaps taken a little longer to adjust. Being extremely hard working and having sacrificed a great deal for my career, I have felt in the past that juniors should “pay their dues” and that sometimes there is a lack of work ethic and commitment in the workplace. But, always game for a challenge, and determined to master this quandary that I often find myself in, how to keep the young, talented staff on my payroll, I have come to understand that I cannot confuse individual characteristics such as immaturity, laziness or extreme confidence with generational traits. Whereas Baby Boomers tend to see a 60-hour work week as a prerequisite to achieving success, many hard-working millennials tend to prefer a more balanced life that includes reasonable working hours–with occasional periods of overtime and a working weekend. Does this mean they contribute less? As I work more and more with millennials, I have come to think not. In fact, I am starting, at last, to take a leaf out of their book and enjoy a more balanced lifestyle myself.

In my research, I have found many contradictory points of view, leading to the belief that we must be circumspect with stereotypes and that it is more important to judge the individual. I remind myself of the prevailing wisdom about the generation, using this understanding to try and make the workplace more stimulating and enjoyable, whilst understanding that it is the quality of work and the meeting of deadlines that is the important frame of reference rather than hours spent at a desk or computer. Google, the No. 1 place to work for the 8th time in 11 years (Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work for, 2017) says that you don’t need to be at your desk to come up with the answer and that work should be challenging and the challenge should be fun. Canteens, recreation facilities, working in clusters, healthy snacks, Friday drinks – the idea that work and play are not mutually exclusive, is exactly what the doctor ordered, when it comes to employing millennials.

Millennials like to collaborate and want to make friends with people at work. Millennial employees interact well with diverse co-workers and want to enjoy their workplace. They are a social generation; talking to their co-workers and making friends which is a great thing as this can help build upon a company culture that will certainly be driven by the founders and directors, but will develop organically over time, enhanced by this social propensity of the younger staff. The challenge in a small start-up is providing the space for a social environment, when the staff complement is small and investment in hard work and long hours is necessary to build the business. Another challenge but not impossible to overcome. Growth is the obvious solution.

Millennials seek leadership and structure from their older and managerial co-workers, but like you to encourage and respect their ideas. They want a challenge and do not want to experience boredom. A letter I received from a designer who resigned after 2 years for a lot more money than we could afford at the time, stated that “she had always admired my management technique and the way I prioritise things so flawlessly”. I keep this card on my desk to remind myself that I should not be tentative around my younger staff, hesitant of doing or saying the wrong thing, being a typical baby boomer – that they want to learn from me and my partner, that they respect our experience and skills – as long as we respect their ideas and points of view. We must share our experience and wisdom whilst being open to the fresh perspectives offered by our younger employees. If their ideas are not on track with the problem at hand, they should be guided by explanation of why their idea is perhaps not the best idea at the time. This leads to understanding and learning, which is what they are hungry for. Millennials, overall, relate far better to a coaching style of management than to a more traditional top-down authoritative approach, typical of baby boomers. Todd Adkins said that “In a world that never stops changing, we need leaders that never stop learning”. I constantly remind myself of this.

Of course, the need for constant stimulation and the avoidance of boredom has led to a perception that younger staff are job-hoppers. One study states that 75 percent of millennials will have between 2 and 5 employers during their lifetime. Personally, I think this is a good thing. Spending too many years in one job can lead to complacency, politicking end entitlement irrespective of capability and expertise. There are also many statistics existing that seem to put paid to this stereotype. One research study stated that “49% of millennials in our research say they would like to stay with an organization for more than 10 years.” Ten years cannot be considered job hopping. Another point of view stated that “If they find a good job fast after graduation, and they feel valued and appreciated in that role, they will typically stay for a long time. They will become institutionalised fairly quickly and be keen to progress within their current organisation, rather than seeking roles externally.”

So what if it is actually us, as employers, who are failing to create a working environment that meets the needs of this generation? They are extremely ambitious and eager for their careers to take off. They want to be challenged and want to constantly be learning – so they go from one company to the next looking for an organization that can fulfill them professionally. The only way to end this pattern is to provide millennials with clear career paths and development opportunities. The challenge in a small start-up is that until you reach the rapid growth phase, it is difficult to keep your young talent that you invest so much into. So, in truth, even though I have been a late starter in getting to grips with managing millennials, I have grown to really appreciate the spin they put on our studio and client service department. I admire their self-confidence, I try and match their life balance, I am in awe of their digital know-how and love how it contributes to expanding our design capability. I am proud of the contribution that my partner and myself can make towards the development of their careers. As our company goes from strength to strength, we will strive to ensure that our junior (and other) staff will always be valued and appreciated, that there will be mutual respect and understanding and I am confident that we will be rewarded with staff who match their career progression with our organisational growth.