[Lessons Learned] Managing Gen-Y and Millenials

Random Observation/Comment #440: Every year, I think I’m becoming increasingly Gen-X. Maybe values are not necessarily linked to the state of the world of when we grew up in it, but rather the responsibilities gained as we grow up.


I’ve been managing Gen-Y interns for the past 4 years and I’ve found there are easy and difficult characteristics about this generation that have been consistent with each new batch.  First, the easy:

  • Highly motivated and competitive. This could be the increasingly competitive job market driving interns to work harder to get the full-time offer, or just anyone in any generation starting a career. Either way, a motivated worker is a good worker.
  • Eager to learn and get started. Along the same lines of having high motivation, having a hunger to absorb new material and go out of the normal comfort zone of what they’ve learned in school is a big step.
  • Overall easy to guide in the right direction. As with all newbies, they are malleable and gullible. Those who are “college-bred” also have a tendency to just follow the syllabus and work as instructed. If you make a syllabus for them, it should be easy to manage.
  • Usually asks a lot of questions. Believe it or not, curiosity in this case is rewarded. We want to see more questions because it shows the first two points.

These traits of an eager go-getter joining the work force certainly make my life easier, but there are also the challenging ones:

  • Lacks “Work experience” (which in many ways is hard to explain). I consider this as a breakdown of the following:
  • Dealing with stakeholders. Professionally speaking with senior management and asking the right questions efficiently to gather requirements, but also set expectations.
  • Navigating the work place. The sociology behind a work place is actually quite fascinating. I’ve found that a majority of actual work is done by those few seasoned SMEs in their fields. Knowing the name of these main contacts is crucial for meeting deadlines.
  • Seeing the ups and downs of project life cycles. Having work experience often has to do with seeing a lot of projects succeed and fail at different points. For someone just starting, the idea is that the “working world” has “their shit together.”  The truth is that it probably doesn’t.
  • Working with experienced professionals. The most important part of work experience is being a part of a team. To some, this means working closely with each other on separate tasks that all come together to a big project completion.  To others, it means grabbing a routine morning coffee with them and small talking.  Without working with an array of different people, it’s hard to know how to react to these different office personalities.
  • Needs too much guidance.  Because college teaches a somewhat ideal way of completing projects, interns naturally treat real-life projects like homework assignments.  In real-life projects, the manager might not know the answer. What one should do is take ownership and dictate the deliverables and project’s scope. (An intern might say “I didn’t know I can do that?!”. To that, I say “the world is your oyster”).
  • Different core set of values (generationally). I think a lot of these generational differences are fluffy and mainly revolve around life value differences, but I have found that all interns want to see the bigger picture value of where the project fits into society. To them, it just becomes so much easier to work on something when they are also a user of it.
  • Different set of communications. Coffee chats vs lync messages vs phone calls. There’s no right answer to this as long as communication works. As a manager, we just need to try these different techniques.

In order to truly make the transition more seamless for both sides, I think both managers and interns need to cooperate.

For interns,

  • Take all opportunities possible to learn more about the business and technology.  Attend seminars, speak with developers, grab coffee with front office (if they’re available), and ask questions. This makes the manager’s job so much easier when they can trust that you’re self-sustainable and don’t need to be babied through everything.
  • Set milestones for yourself and keep your manager updated with your progress. Be more transparent with your values so your managers can help you.
  • Speak with others in your same position. It’s impossible to try all the roles we have to offer, but if you can relate with another intern with similar values and position, you can help each other evaluate each role objectively. On one side, managers need to think about their team headcount and bigger picture project deadlines, but on the other side, managers also care about interns and know their tough choices.

For managers,

  • Foster mentorship/peer programs. Have a team that can empathize with being in their position. Provide close mentorship with TAs who were interns and use the community to teach them.  It can’t always come from a management figure and usually they are less threatened with peer advice.
  • Try not to be a “boss”. Lead by inspiring them and giving them the opportunities and freedoms to prove themselves. It takes time, but let yourself trust them with real work.
  • Give them a side project and let them run with it. This shows trust, but also provides a bit of freedom to work on something they can solely take ownership for. I think these are most effective with proof of concept projects with a manageable scope.
  • Provide tools/platforms to be heard across groups. I think all firms should have an internal version of reddit as an ideas forum with crowd sourced voting and meaningful discussion.

Overall, I don’t think Gen-Y wants to be treated differently, but they just want more opportunities and want to be recognized for their accomplishments/contributions.  This is, however, probably true for people of all generations. We want to feel needed in a community – especially one we spend most of our weekday and waking efforts pushing forward.

~See Lemons A Gen-Y at Heart