The importance of managing Gen Y

The importance of managing Gen Y
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First Published: Fri, Jul 17 2009. 01 09 AM IST

Updated: Fri, Jul 17 2009. 01 09 AM IST
Almost by definition, a generation consists of people who have shared similar experiences. These experiences naturally change proportionate to changes in the pace of technology and globalization. Consistent with these changes, employees are coming to terms, albeit reluctantly, with the fact that there is a gap between their current management pool, the so-called Gen X who were born between 1964 and 1978, and their entry-level employees, the Gen Y, who were born between 1978 and 1990.
While Gen X shared many of the values of their parents’ generation, believing in hard work, hierarchies and a gradualist approach to success, Gen Y is different. Gen X has generally played by the old HR rule book. Gen Y will not.
Gen Y is important because most of these people, now in their 20s, will be the wellspring of economic growth for any company. The company that motivates Gen Y will rule the next 20 years.
Recognizing the importance of managing this group, the Financial Times newspaper some years ago included Bruce Tulgan in its list of the greatest management thinkers. Tulgan, who with Carolyn Martin authored Managing Gen Y a decade ago, recognized early on the need to focus senior managers on this inter-generational change that was seeping through the workplace.
Although there is more knowledge on managing Gen Y in the US, much less awareness exists about this group in India. Therefore, managing this group requires an appreciation of where they come from, as some of my Gen Y friends quaintly put it.
Most members of this generation have grown up in a period of less scarcity than their elders. Having entered their adolescence after liberalization has left them without the ideological baggage of their parents. They are not quite so awed by famous brands and may seen to need rather quicker gratification. Many entered the workforce during the go go years of the early 2000s and have not, until last year, seen a downturn.
More the children of N.R. Narayana Murthy than of Gandhiji, they are comfortable with technology that has enabled them to multi-task and avail an array of educational and recreational alternatives.
Several Gen Y people I know well are substantially more multidimensional in their interests than their counterparts of 10 years ago. This group does want to see clear and direct correlations between effort and reward and is unlikely to work towards a vision it cannot believe in does not buy into. This can frustrate managers, who are used to communicating fuzzy and illogical plans and expecting these to be mindlessly followed.
Many managers express frustration that this group walks in through the door expecting a management responsibility with little regard for the experience others bring to the table. There are also complaints about their candid criticism of workplace culture and company strategy.
Notwithstanding these—which may be genuine—Gen Y is here to stay longer than their managers and so their managers will do well to keep the following principles in mind.
Unwinding: A file photo of Convergys employees in Gurgaon. The generation that’s in its 20s today perceives an employer’s unwillingess to permit flexible hours or telecommute as archaic and uncaring. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Give them feedback. Overcommunicate. Having been used to feedback throughout their lives, be it from schools or from their computer games, they expect managers to make the time to track their performances. By extension, they are not happy to sink or swim on their own. They will not believe that it is logical for an organization to hire people and allow them to endlessly find their feet as was perhaps true several years ago.
Tap into their creativity. As a generation that has been brought up on meritocracy, Gen Y has been encouraged to find creative solutions to problems. Expecting them to demonstrate acceptance of a problem with no effort to provide a solution goes against their grain. Since Gen Y brings tech-savviness and multi-tasking to the fore, they are natural solution providers if given a chance.
Give meaning to their work. In contrast to their parents, who viewed work as a means to a livelihood and no more, this generation typically has a greater sense of the larger significance of their work. They need to understand how their work impacts others and want to participate in decision making. Gen Y who cannot see how their work fits into the goals of the organization will likely remain demotivated.
Not surprisingly, the recent best places to work for study found that of the top 50 companies, 18 were from IT and ITeS. Roles in these sectors are by their very nature likely to require greater clarity about inputs, deliverables, etc.
There is a lesson here for employers. However much the HR gurus may claim employees like flexibility and autonomy, clarity of deliverables wins hands down in the war for employee engagement.
Tell Gen Y the truth. Gen Y employees have the benefit of having seen through the spin through years of watching 24x7 cable. They have seen the unfolding of the dot-com bust, the shabby truth behind Enron and the irresponsible actions which led to the current crisis. They will be far less accepting of spin than their senior cohorts. This intolerance for untruth is one of the greatest virtues of this group. Companies that cannot convince their employees of their strategy will lose the war for talent and, subsequently, the war for the customer.
Consistent with generally higher levels of wealth, Gen Y does seek a better work-life balance. Growing up with mobile phones and BlackBerrys, they believe that the workplace is not necessarily a specific location but wherever they are. An employer’s unwillingess to permit flexible hours, telecommute, etc., is seen, quite rightly, as archaic and uncaring. Providing Gen Y with various lifestyle benefits—sabbaticals, supporting civic causes, etc.—can keep them motivated.
Recall their unique skills. In the Indian context, Gen Y’ers have grown up through the spectre of terrorism, cash for votes and the cynicism of post poll coalitions. The prevalence of 24x7 cable has made more obvious than for their parents the injustice and unfairness that can exist in a poor country, but Gen Y has not lost hope.
More numbers than ever have kept the faith in education as the prime mover of advancement. As Bruce Tugan and Carolyn Martin indicated a decade ago in their book, Gen Y “usurps” intellectual authority because they are more education-minded than their older cohorts. The same is true of Gen Y in India now.
Equally relevant in our country, Gen Y is perhaps the most widely travelled and culturally open group we have seen in a country notorious for fine ascriptive distinctions. These are significant strengths, which are often overlooked in the alacrity to be critical of youth.
Bruce Tulgan, in his recent book, Not everyone gets a trophy, concludes that the response to Gen Y is not to say yes to what may seem to be a long wish list, as many managers seem to have been doing, but instead to provide strong leadership. This entails not fooling them about the challenges of the job, to not let problems hang, and also to set high standards for praise.
These rules of thumb are now getting formal recognition as part of HR practice. Well-known management firm Towers Perrin suggests that managers should be highly engaged in personal development of the employees, treat employees directly, offer some immediate responsibility and provide a level of work-life balance.
We at Tata Capital have attempted to leverage our relative newness as an organization to provide an atmosphere more conducive to Gen Y than might have been possible in more entrenched companies. These have included a much greater level of work-time and parent-friendly options as well as enhanced involvement of our Gen Y in hiring programmes. Similarly, a strong focus on the annual goal-setting process as well as frequent and direct interactions between the senior team and younger colleagues have sought to provide the role alignment desired by Gen Y.
Those who are on the wrong side of 40 will probably be frustrated at the extent of maintenance that is required to manage this group. Several managers who themselves have had to grow up within the more buttoned-up world of the 1980s and 1990s will be surprised at the level of freedom expected by Gen Y.
Gen Y is any company’s greatest resource. Arguably the highest returns on equity will occur from managing this group well. Since the boards of directors are expected to maximize returns to shareholders, only an imprudent board would not review the companies strategy to attract and retain Gen Y.
Govind Sankaranarayanan is CFO, Tata Capital Ltd. He will write on issues related to governance. The views expressed in this column are personal. Write to him at ruleofthumb@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Jul 17 2009. 01 09 AM IST