Saturday, April 18, 2015

When Millennials Take Over by Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant

Jamie and Maddie are friends of mine, so please take what I say with whatever grain of salt you think is necessary, but I really enjoyed this, their second collaborative book, especially one important feature of the way they approached their subject matter.

In each of the chapters on the four capacities, we close with a section on how to build that capacity inside your organization. To be clear, we are not presenting the case studies in order to demonstrate “best practices.” (If you read Humanize, you know that we literally think best practices are evil.) Your challenge is not to do exactly what these companies are doing. Your challenge is to learn from them, to use their experiences to spark a new approach to succeeding in your own context.

It’s like they’ve written the book especially for me--the CEO of a small-staff, non-profit trade association, who is extremely receptive to their book’s core message, but completely turned off by the traditional “do what Google, Apple and Southwest Airlines do” approach espoused by a lot of the business press.

Jamie and Maddie certainly talk about those companies, and cite them (and others) as examples, but they know enough to help the reader understand that the goal isn’t to copy companies like that, but to understand the underlying principles that guide companies like that, and to find ways to uniquely apply those guiding principles to your own organization.

And what are those guiding principles? Those four capacities referenced in the quote above? Well, they are the things that Millennials look for in the workplace. Indeed, as the provocative book title suggests, they are not just the things Millennials look for, they are the way Millennials will shape and run things when they are in charge.

Jamie and Maddie brand these four capacities with the following terms: Digital, Clear, Fluid and Fast. If you want detailed definitions of what each means, I would suggest you go read the book yourself. My focus here will be on the things that hit home for me, and in that regard, becoming more Digital is the one that seems most compelling.

So what is Digital? To paraphrase Jamie and Maddie, despite its name, it is less about the use of technology and more about adopting a particular mindset. Organizations that embrace the digital mindset:

1. Put the customer or user first when it comes to decision making.
2. Provide customized attention to a much larger percentage of customers.
3. Commit to innovation and continuous improvement.

Technology certainly helps an organization accomplish these tasks. Indeed the primary example that Jamie and Maddie offer to demonstrate the digital mindset is Amazon, whose use of technology to understand and provide innovative services to its customers is well understood by almost everyone. It is the way Millennials are used to being treated online, and the example they will follow when moving into the business world.

In my own world, I like to think my organization already has a digital mindset, but it's still clearly using analog tools. Social media and sophisticated web analytics don’t tell us what we need to know about the world of our members--conversations with them at our conferences and at regular member visits do. Customized attention happens--but usually only when we answer their phone calls and connect them to the services they need. And although it's not fully “digital,” the approach seems to be working for us. Membership and membership engagement are both increasing.

But something in the following anecdote about the generations and their use of technology gives me pause about the need to start embracing the digital tools that usually accompany a digital mindset.

Let’s say an older supervisor is heading to a meeting with a vendor about 15 minutes from now, and she realizes she needs some information from one of her Millennial direct reports, so she shoots off a quick email asking for the information. A few minutes later, when she hasn’t received a response, she follows up with a phone call that starts with one of the most annoying sentences in the business world today: “Hey, did you get my email?”

For the Millennial employee (who hadn’t yet seen the email), it is actually confusing that his supervisor would use email when she needed an immediate response. Why wouldn’t she just use the instant messaging client? An instant message will pop up on the employee’s screen (both his computer and his phone), so he will see it right away. Given the volume of email that he receives, he can’t have every email notification on the screen, so the only way he would see the email right away is if he was checking his email every two minutes, which is incredibly inefficient.

The thought that email and instant messages are two different tools to be used for two different purposes was just as lost on me as it was for the fictional supervisor in this anecdote. But Jamie and Maddie are right…

Millennials entering the workforce have already spent years using a variety of digital tools to communicate with friends and coworkers. As much as this draws criticism from older generations who fear that either their writing skills or their people skills have declined as a result, their digital skill base actually brings with it a more sophisticated understanding about which tools work for which purposes.

Touche. What else can I learn about being digital from my Millennial colleagues, and how can I start using those same skills to understand my customers and create better products for them?

Another thing I like about Jamie and Maddie’s work is that it is very well researched and footnoted. They do their homework, reading and incorporating into their thinking and analysis many of other thinkers and theories I don’t ordinarily have time to explore on my own. So reading Notter and Grant is, among other things, like being given a syllabus of other works you should short-list if you want to understand something in greater depth.

In this category, the following paragraph really caught my eye:

In 1960, MIT Business School professor Douglas McGregor published his management classic, The Human Side of Enterprise, which made the famous distinction between what he termed the “Theory X” and “Theory Y” approaches to management, with the X cohort of managers believing workers are fundamentally lazy and need to be coerced to produce, and the Y cohort believing employees are self-motivated and need to be supported to let their full potential be realized.

Reminds me a lot of something I stumbled across some years ago in The Leader’s Handbook by Peter Scholtes. The advice there was always to set personnel policies based on the premise that your employees are trustworthy, not untrustworthy, which that author defined as:

The Trustworthy Employee… a responsible adult.
...wants to contribute and do good work.
...cares about the company and wants it to succeed.
...comes to work every day.
...can be trusted.

The Untrustworthy Employee...
...given an inch, takes a mile.
...does just what’s required.
...feels that it’s just another job.
...doesn’t really give a damn. today—tomorrow?
...can’t be trusted.

And the situational example given comes from the Falk Corporation, which the author says revised its personnel policies based on a switch from the untrustworthy to the trustworthy premise. In the case of bereavement leave, this meant going from a page-long description of all the situations in which the untrustworthy employee could and could not take leave to the following single sentence: “If you require time off due to the death of a friend or family member, make arrangements with your supervisor.” The result? A 53% decrease in the number of bereavement days taken.

Seems like more people than just Jamie and Maddie are referencing that management classic.

But here’s the paragraph from When Millennials Take Over that sparked my biggest takeaway.

More and more organizations are abandoning what have traditionally been deemed “best practices” in the HR world. Menlo Innovations (featured in Chapter 4) specifically hires for what it calls “kindergarten skills,” knowing it can train for technical skills later. Buffer, another technology company, also eliminated the technical interview in its hiring process, focusing only on culture. Both companies then hire people on a short-term basis at first so they can actually see candidates’ technical work in the real world.

I’ve been moving in a similar direction myself, increasing my emphasis on the soft skills and the cultural fit in my hiring practices. But giving those qualities pre-eminence over technical aptitude is the change that I’m moving forward with, and one that I think most small-staff associations should consider.

When hiring decisions are made primarily on technical aptitude--on who has the technical competency to fulfill the duties defined for the vacant position--your biggest risk is paying a premium for a person with the right talent but who may not match the culture of your organization. When hiring decisions are made primarily on “kindergarten skills”--on who has the ability to play nice with others and who is eager and interested in growing and developing--your biggest risk is having an inexperienced person make mistakes. Given the choice between the two, I am from this day forward going with the latter.

Another section on what it takes to create an intentional culture really hit home for me--and not necessarily in a good way.

If you are the CEO, then it quite literally means making culture your job. It is probably already somewhere in your job description, but most CEOs put that in the category of “Yes I’m in charge of that because the buck stops here, but it doesn’t occupy too much of my attention.” That is a sure-fire path to an accidental culture. CEOs must actively choose their culture, or it will be chosen for them. And doing that one offsite meeting where you come up with the generic core values (honesty, integrity, excellence, etc.) so you can check the box on culture is not enough. Employees can smell a partial commitment to culture a mile away, and it won’t stick.

This is exactly what I have been trying to avoid. Read the Core Values section of my blog and you’ll see that I’ve been working (and struggling) to define and make core values stick for my organization--to define an intentional culture that is closely associated with success in our environment. We’ve had the retreat, we’ve defined the values, and I’m still trying to move them off my own “Yes I’m in charge of that…” plate. But what Jamie and Maddie say next really surprised me.

Instead, they will look past the bland values statement and scrutinize your actual statements and your actual behavior and then invent a culture based on that. We are not sure why employees routinely cede that power to shape culture to the CEO, but they do.

If anything, I think I have the opposite situation. From my perspective, the culture of my organization is the one I inherited, and the exercise to define and support a new set of core values is an attempt to adapt that culture to one more aligned with my own professional style and the correlates of future success. If that is a self-delusion, and I’m actually acting in ways that run counter to the new values, I would hope that someone would have the guts to stand up and tell me that.

Elsewhere in the book, Jamie and Maddie talk about the importance of authenticity--about how when “people are confident that their coworkers are more consistently who they appear to be, it becomes easier to speak the truth, challenge each other, and tackle the tough issues.” They don’t have to convince me. I’m already on-board the authenticity wagon. But what is new for me is the idea that there are things an organization can do to help its employees surface their authenticity. The suggestions include:

Self awareness. Personality assessments like the DISC profile or Myers-Briggs can help employees get clearer about their own preferences and styles, which is a good first step toward deeper self-awareness. If done in the context of a team or group, this can also be helpful in conflict resolution.

This one has occurred to me before, but as someone who, at previous organizations, has been subjected to the batteries of tests and bubble forms that normally accompany these assessments, my own struggle to take them seriously has prevented me from bringing them into my own organization. Pick the word that best describes you. You always, sometimes or never do this or that. Go ahead. Have everyone answer the 45 or the 100 or the 300 questions and see what the rubric reveals about everyone. Whatever the results, I guarantee that people will argue that they aren’t complete or even accurate, and they will cause more defensive posturing that what you had before you asked people to take the tests.

A better idea, I think, is:

Life goals. As diversity trainer and consultant Joe Gerstandt points out, if you want to act in ways that are consistent with your purpose and goals in life, then you need to have some clarity in that area to begin with. While the ultimate responsibility for this work lies with the employee, the organization can facilitate the work through the annual performance-review process. Fitness Australia (the professional association for the fitness industry in Australia) has its employees complete “personal success plans” as part of the review process, which are solely and explicitly about the employees achieving their own destiny. They are not evaluated on the work, but employees share them on the intranet so they can support each other in achieving them.

This is is much more to my taste. I’ve always been more about the journey than the destination, and there are already some personal development goals that I have (becoming a better writer and a better public speaker come immediately to mind) where my job is giving me the opportunity to exercise the necessary muscles in the service of the organization I work for. The organization benefits not just from my improved performance, but also by connecting more of my authentic self to its goals and objectives. I wonder what, if given the same opportunity, the other members of my staff would identify as the things that represent their own personal developmental goals, and how they would see connecting them to the work of our organization. Might be worth talking about.

And finally there is:

Community. Authenticity has a yin-yang relationship with a strong community. The best communities are ones that allow people to be themselves fully, and authentic individuals typically create the strongest and most vibrant communities. Be intentional about what kind of community you have among your staff and strengthen it by facilitating connections and relationships and supporting community rituals and artifacts.

I’ve already been trying to do more of this work around the office, so this is a timely reminder for how important this kind of thing is. Coming to work day-in and day-out without marking either the passage of time-based or accomplishment-based milestones is a big mistake. To knit together as a community of authentic individuals, we have to not just celebrate our success and our time together, we have to do it in a way that is meaningful to us as individuals. Corporate-style lunches and recognition ceremonies can provide some of that context, but generally not enough to engage people and their authentic selves.

These are the practical lessons I took out of this helpful book. There is, however, one area that I would quibble with. It has nothing to do with the book’s analysis of the Millennial generation and its transformative impact on the modern workplace. It has to do with a small issue of scale.

As Jamie has been doing for a long time, When Millennials Take Over relies heavily on the pioneering work of William Strauss and Neil Howe both to define and to provide a conceptual frame for the scholarly subject of generations. In their analysis, not only do Strauss and Howe see changes from one generation to the next throughout our history, they…

identify a deeper, cyclical pattern that more closely resembles the repetitive turning of the four seasons than a straight timeline from past to future. Each “season” in this cycle is represented by a single generation, which turns every 20 years or so, and every four “seasons” the cycle completes, marked by a major societal transition.

Strauss and Howe make a big deal out of these major societal transitions--calling them “turnings”--and so do Jamie and Maddie.

When you look at the pattern, it’s almost frightening in its accuracy. Once every four generations (roughly 80 to 100 years), there has been a major war that marked the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. The first transition was during the Revolutionary War in the 1770s, obviously a big shift as the Colonial era gave way to our first era as an independent nation. Flash forward 80 or 90 years from that point and you end up in the American Civil War, and the four generations later, like clockwork, there is another transition: the Great Depression and World War II, which represents the transition between the pre-modern and modern eras in the United States.

And, of course, if it was the GI Generation that came of age during this latest “turning”--the third by Strauss and Howe’s count--and if we have had three generations since then--the Silents, the Baby Boomers, and the Xers--then it is clearly our newest generation--the Millennials--who are poised to come of age and take us into our fourth turning.

That may all be true. But if the first turning was forged in the Revolutionary War, the second in the American Civil War, and the third in the Great Depression and World War II, then I’m not sure that finding a new way to lead and manage organizations scales to the same levels of major societal transition.

If I’m wrong, and there is a revolution coming, then for all our sakes, I hope it will be a peaceful one.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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