How to work better with Gen Y

So-called 'milennials' are confident, ambitious, and tech-savvy, says one expert. They also need constant coaching.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

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NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Dear Annie: Once again this year I've been put in charge of our division's summer internship program, and to be honest, I'm dreading it. I'm not a big fan of generalizations about entire generations - I'm a Boomer and never feel like the stereotypes describe me - but I find "millennials," a.k.a. Generation Y, just baffling.

For one thing, they seem both overly ambitious and not ambitious enough. For instance, last year, one very bright and talented intern asked me how long it had taken me to get to my level in the company (14 years), then said he could do it in half the time. Yet he wasn't a hard worker and left on the dot of five every single day, no matter what was going on. I did my best to try and explain the connection between effort and advancement, but I doubt that it sunk in.

This year we have a new crop of 22 college seniors coming in, and we're going to expect them to accomplish some real results. Do you have any advice on how to communicate effectively with people in this age group? -Open to Suggestions

Dear Open: Have I got a book for you. Bruce Tulgan, head of a consulting firm called Rainmaker Thinking, has made a career out of counseling hundreds of companies, from Abbott Laboratories (ABT, Fortune 500) to Walt Disney (DIS, Fortune 500), on how to attract, motivate, and keep young employees. His latest book is Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y (Jossey-Bass, $24.95).

Tulgan agrees with you that not all members of any generation are alike. Still, "there are broad trends and patterns of behavior that can be useful in understanding what makes someone in a given age group tick." Gen Y, roughly defined as anyone born between 1978 and 1990, has been "coached and tutored and guided and over-parented at every step of the way" in their short lives so far, Tulgan observes, so they may strike you as much more high-maintenance than you or your peers ever were.

"The sink-or-swim method of management many Boomers experienced, where you're expected to figure things out for yourself, does not work with Gen Y," he says. "They need all-day, every-day coaching, and it has to start as soon as they walk in the door."

Not Everyone Gets a Trophy is chock full of mini-case studies from the companies where Tulgan has helped managers get great results from Gen Y employees - while keeping them happy so they don't leave - and I wish I had the space to reprint the whole book here. I don't, so here are five suggestions (from Chapter 8) for firing up your interns:

1. Set clear ground rules at the outset. "Managers tell me every day that Gen Yers fail to meet a lot of unspoken expectations about behavior in the workplace," says Tulgan. "I have an idea: Speak them." Of course, this requires you to figure out in some detail exactly what your expectations are. Then state them in no uncertain terms.

"The more you spell out clear ground rules up front, the better things will go," says Tulgan. "Write them down. They will serve as an easy point of reference whenever you want to remind one of your interns of something that matters to you: 'We both know that this is one of my ground rules.' "

2. Establish a regular time and place for one-on-one meetings. "Remember that Gen Yers have grown up hyperscheduled," Tulgan says. "They thrive on that kind of structure, and they thrive on one-on-one, personalized attention."

So you, and any of your peers who are working with this crop of interns, need to sit down with each one to discuss his or her work as often as you can - every day if possible, but if not, then at least once a week. It's a chance to set goals, talk about problems, and find out what your interns might need from you.

"Making a plan to meet regularly, no matter how busy things get, is a huge commitment for both of you. It's a powerful statement that you care enough to spend time setting this person up for success," says Tulgan. "It's also a lot of pressure on both of you. But it's good pressure."

3. Focus on solutions, not problems. As one executive with a successful track record of managing Gen Y employees told Tulgan, "They want to improve. If you talk about continuous improvement, they are all ears." So teach them how, by concentrating on what happens next. Whenever something goes wrong, says Tulgan, "keep asking: Exactly what concrete actions - next steps - are you going to take now? What can you do to improve? What do you need to revise and adjust?" There was a reason Socrates asked his pupils so many questions. When people figure something out on their own, the lesson sticks.

4. Keep track of their performance. It may be tempting not to bother monitoring and evaluating your interns' performance the way you would with a "real" employee. But if you want great results from these young people, skipping the evaluation process would be a mistake. Tulgan recommends asking customers for feedback on the interns' work, asking other managers, and asking Gen Yers themselves to describe and evaluate what they're accomplishing. When in doubt, err on the side of excessive attention to detail.

As one Gen Yer told Tulgan, "I'd rather have a manager who is keeping really close track of what I'm doing than one who doesn't know who I am or what I'm doing and doesn't care."

5. Teach them how to get what they need from you. Managers often tell Tulgan that Gen Yers make a lot of requests and demands. "I tell them, 'They're doing you a favor by asking for things. Once you know what they want from you, you have the key to getting what you want from them.' "

Without bogging down in endless negotiations, come up with a quid pro quo: You can have A if you'll agree to do (or stop doing) B. Handled correctly, a demand from a GenYer can turn into an opportunity to offer him or her a reward linked directly to performance - which is what really motivates most millennials.

If this all sounds like a lot of work, it is. "I'm not saying that taking on this constant coaching is good news for managers," says Tulgan. "I'm just saying it works." Whatever else you may think of this generation, Tulgan notes, they bring "a wealth of technical knowledge, energy, enthusiasm, and a tremendous openness to new ideas." And what company couldn't use more of those? "They're worth the trouble," says Tulgan. "Don't humor them. Take them seriously, and they'll reward the effort." Here's hoping.

Readers, what do you think? If you manage Gen Y employees, do you think they differ from other generations? What do you like and dislike about their work? Any tips on communicating effectively with them? Gen Yers, what do you like or dislike about the way your boss deals with you? What motivates you (or doesn't) to do your best work? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog. To top of page

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