Motivating the Next Generation

August 30, 2011

By Laurie Clarke, COO, The Tatham Group

Squirt: Good afternoon. We’re gonna have a great jump today. Okay, first crank a hard cutback as you hit the wall. There’s a screaming bottom curve, so watch out. Remember: rip it, roll it, and punch it.

Marlin: It’s like he’s trying to speak to me, I know it.

[to Squirt]  Marlin: Look, you’re really cute, but I can’t understand what you’re saying. Say the first thing again.

— Finding Nemo, Disney Pixar, 2003

My daughter is pretty easy going and always on the lookout for adventure. She knows what the right things to do are and gives a sly little side-glance as she purposefully breaks a rule. Loves to be the center of attention and more often than not steals the show wherever we find ourselves.  Outgoing, determined, intelligent, charming, impatient with an art for mischief.

When I take a step back, I see that she and her playmates exhibit all of the same characteristics as the Generation X and Yers that are flooding the leadership and business worlds. Her generation appears to add more immediacy and intensity to give a hint of what is yet to come. And I’m experiencing what many executives do on a daily basis – a communication gap. Do they even speak the same language?

As a member of Generation X myself, I understand and have an easy time relating to the next generation of leaders. There are five rules of thumb to motivate that I’ve found work well and I also apply with my daughter, albeit with more hand gestures and repetition. Hint: Fear’s not one of them.

  1. Explain the big picture. Make it emotional not just factual. It’s not just about the company success.  It’s also about what value I provide on a daily basis that makes a difference.  Relate what they do back to the impact their work has on the organization and to the customers directly.  Listen to and share the customer stories. For example, you didn’t just sell a life insurance policy; you made sure that a young widow would be able to provide financially for her children in the event of her husbands’ death. You sold her peace of mind.  Or risk managers don’t just make sure the company makes financially secure decisions, you make sure that our company is able to provide our customers with the means to fulfill their future needs. We don’t do any customers any good being out of business.
  2. Provide consistent and firm discipline. Having grown up with two working, often absent parents, many Generation X and Y’s are seeking the structure they may not have received at home. Where are the boundaries? What can I get away with? Do I get rewarded regardless of my behaviour or performance? Providing clear lines and having consequences given consistently and immediately is the best way to increase productivity. Call it tough love. At least they know that someone is watching and cares enough to do what is right for them, encouraging them to do better and following up to reward when it’s appropriate. Consistency is the key to success on this one.
  3. Recognize with more than just money. The greatest transfer of wealth will be occurring from baby boomers to their children. Something to remember if you are relying on money alone as your compensation motivation. The best motivator can be as simple as a genuine thank you. Or public recognition for efforts and success. This only works if it is something that should be rewarded and if the reward is appropriate for the effort/results. Otherwise it becomes the present given after every road trip, discarded before it’s opened.
  4. Listen, listen, listen. Excitement, energy and new ideas are never in short supply. Listen, hear and respond. Even if there is nothing that can be done, the idea is not within budget, etc. Respect the idea and follow-up even if it’s with a not right now or no. You’ll likely find the best market expansion ideas, marketing campaigns and product ideas from this group. They are, generally, working the closest to the customer and as a bonus happen to think like your next generation of customer.
  5. Offer challenge and variety internally. Mislabeled as ADD, our generations have a desire for variety, challenge, immediacy and social interactions in our workplaces. More time is spent at work than at home and we make friends, meet partners and build families at the office. If these needs aren’t met then we will hop on over to the next company. Loyalty is given to our networks more than to our organizations. Perhaps taking the obsession with the supernatural too far Gen X and Y tend to travel in covens or packs.

Like in Finding Nemo, my daughters’ favorite movie, Marlin shelters, doesn’t listen to and otherwise stifles Nemo’s sense of adventure. These interactions build up to the series of unfortunate events.   At the end of the movie, Marlin trusts Nemo’s suggestion, however unconventional, and watches innovation and determination succeed. The next generation is not going to be led with ‘because I said so’ reasoning or by telling them what they are and are not able to achieve. Set the stage and let them soar, fall and soar higher.

Marlin: I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.

Dory: Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.

Marlin: What?

Dory: Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.  Not much fun for little Harpo.

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