‘How Do I Get THROUGH to Them …?’ Connecting With Gen Y

The biggest complaints I hear from Vistage CEO and Key groups about the Millennial Generation are generally variations on two themes, and are always delivered in an exasperated tone: “How do I get through to them?” and “How can I get them to understand what I need or what I want them to do?”

Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, have always been motivated by having a stellar career — essentially, by successfully accumulating material and financial wealth. By any measure, they have succeeded in spades; Boomers are the wealthiest generation in history. And with a nod to the old Smith Barney ad, they got there earnestly — they earned it. Boomers created their wealth by bringing a new construct into the workforce: the 70 to 80 hour work week.

Most of the Vistage CEOs I work with fall into this category: successful Boomers who have worked 70 to 80 hours per week most of their careers in order to achieve their current financial and material place in the world. And it is precisely these same CEOs who are having such difficulty connecting with, engaging, and reaching Generation Y.

Millennials are different from Boomers in innumerable ways, and one critical difference is in their motivators (contrary to popular belief, they DO have things that motivate them). Although there are several key factors that motivate this generation, I would suggest that the most fundamental is: purpose.

Purpose is meaning, cause and significance — essentially, understanding where you fit into “the big picture.” Millennials are magnetically attracted to purpose — and, as a result, my recommendation when working with organizations trying to recruit, retain and engage Generation Y is to ensure that you provide them with answers to key questions, such as “How does my role here impact the organization/community/world?” and “How does my role here change human experience in the world?” Keep your answer simple. If every employee cannot understand and articulate the organization’s cause off the top of their heads, it’s too complicated to be compelling.

I know that many Boomers just want to be able to tell Millennials what to do (and actually have them DO it) … but that’s not leadership. A key element of leadership is creating a coherent vision and purpose for the organization and its members, which in turn can inspire the behaviors you want and need from employees.

It’s important to understand that this issue of purpose, meaning and significance — “the big picture” — is something that Millennials begin wrestling with in college. Many of them have spoken and written about the distress they experience because they can’t find a job that gives them meaning and purpose in life. For previous generations, that used to be reserved for one’s proverbial mid-life crisis — but Millennials are dealing with this issue now, in college and at the beginning of their careers. Perhaps they’re overachievers after all.

There are two books I can recommend for defining purpose in an organization. The first, Start With Why, is by Simon Sinek. The second is Tribal Leadership, by Logan, King and Fischer-Wright. Both books discuss purpose and cause — and their fundamental power in the leader’s relationship with an organization.

In addition, here are a few steps you might consider in order to illuminate the purpose of your organization:

  1. Ensure you know the answers to two critical questions: How does what we do, as an organization, change the world? How does what we do change human experience in the world? Most CEOs I work with struggle to answer one or both questions.
  2. Ask your employees, “What do you see as our cause?” This question will provide great insight into the disparity between what you believe is your organizational cause and what your employees believe. Any disparity means there’s work to be done. Bear in mind that people develop and care for what they own. By asking your employees what they see as the organization’s cause, you invite them to take ownership of it. In so doing, they will help develop and care for the cause and the organization.
  3. Bear in mind that any final articulation of your organizational cause must also meet two additional criteria: (1) It must be understandable to a sixth grader and (2) it must be recitable at gunpoint. Meaning: the message has to be clear, understandable, compelling and memorable.
  4. Engage everyone in the cause, from top to bottom. Every position should be very directly tied to the organizational cause. Even entry-level employees should know where and how they fit into the grand scheme of things, and why what they do is important.

This topic and more are included in the Vistage Connect™ CEO peer advisory sessions. Learn more.

Gustavo R. Grodnitzky, Ph.D., works with corporate leaders and organizational teams, focusing on helping people change their work environments by making better choices and fine-tuning their interactions with others. You can e-mail Dr. Grodnitzky at Gustavo@DrGustavo.com.

  1. Jessica Owens

    January 6, 2012 at 12:02 am

    So true! as a member of #genY, I will testify that purpose is probably my biggest motivator. Whether it is related to government/law, my job, marketing– anything! I want to know why I should care or why anyone should care for that matter. 

  2. Valerie Iravani

    January 6, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    Gustavo, thanks for the great post and I hope a ton of CEOs and managers read it.

    The most effective way to manage GenY employees is to talk to them, give them lots of feedback, listen to them, and let them know that you value them as a team member.

    Another important management skills it to help Gen Y employees develop all of their skill sets through networking within the organization, giving them opportunities to demonstrate leadership (if they want that skill), and to work on collaborative projects with other departments.  

    Continuous learning is also one of their values as a whole.  They are used to continuous change and get bored more easily that the Boomer generation.

    I’m unfortunately a cynic about “managers” because I have rarely found my own managers to be curious and interested in people as a whole.  Too bad more companies do not hire employees with people skills into manager roles.

    On the other hand, I know how to be a great manager and create teams of all ages who are committed, interested, and passionate about their success.  Rock on!

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  5. Compassed

    February 2, 2012 at 10:52 pm

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