Managing Generation X
(IDG) -- Are those Gen X-ers all that different from the Baby Boomers (or older) who are hiring them? The answer, for the most part, is yes. But rather than worry about how to shoehorn them into your corporate structure, you might as well learn from them. After all, their expectations and habits will define the workplace of the future. And if you don't understand their desire for flexibility or the fact that they expect to learn as they work, you could find your IT department in a state of continuous, chaotic turnover—a permanent, intractable staffing bind.
Bruce Tulgan, 39, author of Managing Generation X: How to Bring Out the Best in Young Talent and founder and president of the RainmakerThinking Inc. consultancy in New Haven, Conn., says that the Gen X style of blurring the boundaries between the workplace and the home, between the personal and the professional, fits well with the needs of the millennial corporation.
"In today's global economy, employees and their employers need to think about their working lives in a whole new way," Tulgan says. "Everything is turned on its head. [Job] security is not about stability; it's about mobility. The very same forces that are changing today's workplace are working on Gen X, and they are dovetailing."
In the new order, Tulgan suggests, don't worry if your staffers demand flexible hours; leverage it to your advantage. For example, if you are willing to allow employee X to work a short Friday in exchange for putting in a few longer days because of a project deadline, then he might be more willing to hold that 3 a.m. conference call with the client in Tokyo.
Part of succeeding as an enterprise means successfully managing your staff, and these days that means working to turn your culture into a place the Gen X-ers will want to call home.
Marian Lucia, 44, operations and systems vice president for the Prudential Insurance Co. of America institutional investments group in Newark, N.J., knows that her new employees are, well, different. She notices, for example, that "they'll always send an e-mail rather than pick up the phone." She notices that "fitness center memberships are very, very big with this group." Most important, she notices that because Gen X-ers are in such high demand, they're hard to recruit and even more difficult to retain.
Indeed, some managers wonder why they should invest in training a new employee if she's going to take those hot new skills—skills you've paid for—and jump to another company. That can't be good for the bottom line.
On the other hand, a September 1998 poll conducted by The Gallup Organization Inc. in Princeton, N.J., revealed that employees between the ages of 16 and 32 were more likely to stay with companies that invested heavily in training.
Frank Caccamo, 59, corporate vice president and CIO of the Reynolds & Reynolds Co., an information management systems firm in Dayton, Ohio, now sees the ways in which Gen X-ers (who comprise between 30 percent to 40 percent of his IT staff) approach their worklives as a net plus for his business.
For instance, Caccamo says his Gen X employees are concerned with how their IT skills will fit into the enterprise. "This is different from some employees who have been around a longer time who are often just interested in the task at hand," Caccamo says.
As a way of opening up communication, helping IT employees see the nature of their roles and inviting input, he instituted regular all-hands meetings in which everyone but help desk staffers gives status reports on major initiatives. "These meetings are in direct response to requests from IT employees," says Caccamo, and "the whole employee base gets a lot out of it." Sometimes the employees perform skits at the meetings, and members of the leadership team will wear silly costumes. (Caccamo believes that Generation X is used to getting its information spiced with entertainment.) Caccamo says the important business message is, "Doing well in IT requires teamwork, and here is how you can develop your [team] skills."
Reynolds recently changed the way work was allocated, partly in response to its employees' desire for teaming and working outside the tight design of their jobs. All employees participated in this exercise. Managers spent between four and six months meeting with more than 200 IT employees in what Caccamo calls a "whole career pathing process." After reviewing their goals and experience as well as evaluating skill levels, employees were given skill ratings and put in "job families."
This restructuring was done to put IT more in line with the company's business directives, Caccamo says, but the result was also in line with what many employees, especially Gen X-ers, were saying they wanted. "One of the things we have found is that [Gen X] employees need to feel that they have some say in how things work. We used to have a very tight design for our jobs. So we changed that. We created a common set of job families with a corresponding skill level.
"The Gen X-ers let me know they liked this process. They appreciated the fact that management had not gone off in a corner and just did something to them.
Caccamo says that Gen X-ers have also pushed to loosen up the hierarchy surrounding promotions and communication. "We want employees to expect a straight answer in an open forum," he says. "And if you don't, you should be able to go around the hierarchy and get your answer. I tell my staff members that if they don't like my answer to something, they should come and see me and press me. I don't get a lot of takers on that—but the Gen X-ers are usually the ones who do. I find that I have to respond quickly to requests for new assignments—within reason of course—because if I don't, they may leave. Their loyalty is less deep, and frankly, with all the downsizing in corporations today that's a smart way to be."
As an example of how Gen X-ers function differently within the corporate environment, Caccamo cites a Gen X-er who came to him and lobbied heavily for a shot at a job for which he was not being actively considered. "Older folks tend to want to be tapped," Caccamo says. "But this individual wanted his name in the ring. I ended up giving him the job because he had good arguments. Had he gone through the normal process of having his manager review it and get his request to me, it might have taken longer and maybe someone else would have gotten the job."
Robert Blackburn, 26, is a manager of application developers who has worked at Reynolds for more than two years and previously worked for Electronic Data Systems Corp. He says one of the things he appreciates about worklife at Reynolds is that the atmosphere is "less corporate" and more family-oriented than that of his previous job. At Reynolds, casual dress is encouraged and the atmosphere has a free-and-easy quality Blackburn enjoys. He also appreciates the job's flexibility, something he says is important to him.
"One week I may have to work really long hours because of a project. And I'm willing to do that, but they are flexible enough so that if it isn't called for, you aren't expected to do that every week," he says. "That's good in today's environment. They respect the fact that if I get the job done, a strictly defined workday is not necessary. They also do things like provide onsite dry cleaning services, making it easier to do my job and keep up with errands."
Blackburn thinks the main difference between his generation and the company's older employees lies in the nature of their goals. "People my age tend to like change, to not want to be pigeonholed, to get a lot of different experiences, to be able to move across the organization," Blackburn says. "Sometimes older folks seem to fear change more. They want to master something and then stick with it exclusively. I see Reynolds changing more along the lines of our generation, to moving people throughout the organization to keep up with changes. When you're in IT, you don't want to get stuck somewhere because technology changes so fast and you could get left behind."
Gen X-ers appreciate creativity in both management techniques and in recruiting tactics, CIOs and human resources managers say. For instance, at Prudential, Cindy Lowden, 40, vice president for succession planning and accelerated development programs, discovered while recruiting on campus that Gen X-ers were attracted to the company's strategy of involving employees in community service. "I was making small talk with some students when I mentioned the global volunteer day we have," Lowden says. "All of a sudden this became a hot topic.
So the next time Prudential recruited at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., the company devised a hands-on activity. Rather than simply having Prudential employees talk up their jobs, they set up an assembly line for students and employees to fill backpacks with toothbrushes, soap, snacks and other items for children who have been taken from their homes in court actions and are on the way to a foster home or an institution. "It took a lot more logistics," Lowden says. "But it was great for the students to chat with the recruiters and employees while getting something accomplished. Our attendance quadrupled over the last recruitment session."
Tulgan says that by listening more closely to Gen X-ers, companies can find the keys to success. "We are all moving into the workplace of the future together. It's all about competing for the best people. And the best people are thinking about their worklives in a whole new way. [Employers] have to lose their attachment to the old-fashioned career path. We can all learn from the emerging workforce and generation."
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