Millennials in the Workplace: Lead. Don’t Manage.

This is part 2 in a week-long series titled The Millennial Revolution.
Part 1: The Millennial Revolution: An Experiment
Part 3: Millennials in the Workplace: Motivation vs. Compensation

Yesterday’s post spawned some great discussion in the comments thread. Thank you to those who are contributing to the conversation!

We’re going to jump into the meat today and begin examining how companies can attract, hire and retain Millennial employees.

Mechanical vs. Cognitive

Prevailing management theory evolved out of the industrial revolution when the bulk of our economy centered on the creation of products, not the delivery of services.

Creating a widget is a mechanical task that requires little to no cognitive or emotional reasoning. You put the bolt in the widget then move it down the assembly line for the next person to perform their task.

Delivering a service, on the other hand, is a predominantly cognitive and emotional work. It requires that we think creatively about problems and solutions. We are often required to consider the feelings of those we work with and the customers we serve then adjust how we’re operating in response.

Mechanical is linear. Cognitive is anything but linear. So why do we think we can manage linearly?

You Can’t Manage the Cognitive Like the Mechanical

“Management” is about controlling the variables, minimizing changes in inputs and reducing the risk of faulty outcomes. Let’s say you’re in the middle of assembling a car and one of your line workers decides he doesn’t care for the aesthetics of how the steering wheel is positioned. So rather than install it as required, he feels as if “inspiration has struck” and he places it in the middle of the car “to balance it out.”

What happens? Nothing good.

So managers were installed to ensure things like this didn’t happen. They “manage” the variables. They reduce risk and prevent deviation from “standard operating procedure.”

Unfortunately, most of what modern workers do each day can’t be effectively controlled using this style of management. Let me give you an example: customer service representatives.

How many people really look forward to calling the customer service line of a company? Not many.

The reason is because they operate under assembly line management theory. Most reps are measured on four major statistics: calls answered, calls abandoned from the queue (hang ups while on hold), call time (shorter is better), and customer satisfaction.

What’s the problem here? Customer satisfaction is very rarely improved by talking to more people for shorter time! And did you know that many customer service reps have to raise their hands and get permission to go to the bathroom? Sign me up!

What do you think would happen if the primary statistic they were measured on was customer satisfaction? What would happen if they could spend a few extra minutes on the phone with a customer to ensure their satisfaction? And what do you think would happen to morale if they could go to the bathroom without asking permission like they were 6 years old?

Management places heavy emphasis on methodology as a way to improve results because assembly of a product depends on consistent application of methodology.

Leading as an Alternative

In a knowledge-based service economy, is methodology equally important as results? Phrased another way, are the best results always determined using repeatable, predictable and measurable methods?

The answer is a definitive “no.”

So how do we change to accommodate this shift? The answer is not to focus on managing processes but to challenge and encourage through leadership.

If management is focused on process and methodology, leadership is focused on outcome and results. Leaders improve results by leveraging the passion, gifts and talents of a group of people inspiring them to work toward a common goal.

Leaders are part of the team – not above it. They focus on demonstrating and coaching from the front rather than on directing and controlling from above.

What does this all look like?

Nobody Ever Managed a Movement – They Lead One

If Martin Luther King, Jr. had installed managers, I shudder to think where we’d be today. If Jesus had the 12 Senior VPs instead of the 12 disciples, the Message would’ve been bogged down in red tape and political bureaucracy.

To lead a team of people requires a common goal, a core message, and a set of principles that the group choose to live by and believe in. There must be a core message and a culture that is created around that. But it’s more than that…

Wait for it…

Then you must get out of the way and let people figure out how to carry that message and pursue that goal within the guidelines you’ve created. You must push them toward excellence by encouraging them and showing them that they are a part of something greater than themselves.

What You Can Learn from Coaches

Growing up, most Millennials played at least one team sport. We had soccer moms and little league dads. We were shaped by those experiences to expect coaching – not managing.

If you want to attract and retain Millennials you and your managers have to learn how to become great coaches. Have you ever noticed what sets great coaches apart from good coaches?

  • Great coaches care about winning (results) but they know there is no set method for achieving it (methodology). Each game will be different. Each game will require different strategy. Players can’t do the exact same thing in each game and expect the same result.
  • Great coaches learn about the gifts and strengths of each team member. We can’t all be pitchers. We can’t all be star outfielders. That’s okay. You need an array of talent. Find out what we’re gifted and talented at and let us work in our strengths.
  • Great coaches give players lots of one-on-one attention. They don’t hand them a manual and tell them to “learn the plays.” Instead, they tell them to learn the plays then they work with them day in and day out practicing those plays. Most companies offer little in the way of ongoing training. And very rarely does that come from a manager. Instead, employees are shuffled to a classroom during a lunch hour.
  • Great coaches rarely sit in an office. Instead, they are down on the field working with the players. The lead from the field.

What do you think? Are you up to the challenge of becoming a great coach? Is your leadership team? What changes can you start making right now? What things can you stop doing?

There is so much more, but this post is getting a bit longer than I originally wanted. So let’s continue to dialogue in the comments below.

About the Author

  • jasonrmoore

    My experience with managing this generation leads me to think the point that you make that is most important is:

    "You must push them toward excellence by encouraging them and showing them that they are a part of something greater than themselves."

    In general, this is no different than previous generations, but this is the first generation that has a realistic option to avoid long-term employment at companies that don't fit their ideals. Prior managerial generations could use fear-based tactics to keep employees in lock step. There are more opportunities available to people in just about any geography where this is no longer the case.

    Both parties, the company and the employee, naturally focus on what is best for them. It is up to the company to make those align for their talent pool to stay engaged.

    Great series so far, Travis.

    • Thank you! And great point, Jason. We truly are the first generation with options for something different. I think something that many of these companies don't realize is that if they don't adapt, we'll either go somewhere else or start our own companies. Either way, they won't survive unless they learn to change themselves. I truly believe a lot of companies won't be successful in making that shift. I also think a lot of them will ignore it entirely and stick their heads in the sand until it's too late.

  • jasonrmoore

    My experience with managing this generation leads me to think the point that you make that is most important is:

    "You must push them toward excellence by encouraging them and showing them that they are a part of something greater than themselves."

    In general, this is no different than previous generations, but this is the first generation that has a realistic option to avoid long-term employment at companies that don't fit their ideals. Prior managerial generations could use fear-based tactics to keep employees in lock step. There are more opportunities available to people in just about any geography where this is no longer the case.

    Both parties, the company and the employee, naturally focus on what is best for them. It is up to the company to make those align for their talent pool to stay engaged.

    Great series so far, Travis.

    • Thank you! And great point, Jason. We truly are the first generation with options for something different. I think something that many of these companies don't realize is that if they don't adapt, we'll either go somewhere else or start our own companies. Either way, they won't survive unless they learn to change themselves. I truly believe a lot of companies won't be successful in making that shift. I also think a lot of them will ignore it entirely and stick their heads in the sand until it's too late.

  • Great post Travis! This puts into words excellently what I have been thinking for a long time. I think the analogy to a coach is spot on!

    • Thank you so much, Adam! Glad you found it useful and/or interesting. 🙂

  • Great post Travis! This puts into words excellently what I have been thinking for a long time. I think the analogy to a coach is spot on!

    • Thank you so much, Adam! Glad you found it useful and/or interesting. 🙂