Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

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Federal Coach: How to manage a millennial

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

This week we have a question about younger folks in the workplace:

How do I motivate millennials who believe they know everything? - Federal supervisor

To many generation X and baby boomer supervisors, the millennial generation can seem like a mystery to manage. It’s a challenge to live up to the expectations they’ve developed having been reared in an online, on-demand world.

While there are certainly social and cultural differences among millennials and other generations, I’m concerned that we too often fall into stereotypes that cause us to focus on solving the wrong problems.

When you think back to earlier points in your career, were you really all that different from the millennials you’re leading now? Sure, they’re different in any number of superficial ways. At the end of the day, however, they’re looking for the same opportunities to make a difference, develop their skills and grow into leadership positions – albeit more quickly than you!

I’m reading a book by Bruce Tulgan called Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y . After working with thousands of leaders and millennials, who are also known as generation Y, he outlines the major misperceptions many of us have about them. He also offers some strategies for successfully managing – and getting the most from – your millennials.

According to Tulgan, it’s not that millennials think they know everything or that they’re entitled to the top job on day one. Rather, he said, “they want to hit the ground running on day one. They want to identify problems that nobody else has identified, solve problems that nobody else has solved, make existing things better, invent new things. They want to make an impact.”

This sounds like an ideal public servant. We need more folks who can figure out new ways of meeting the public’s high expectations even with budgets on the decline.

The challenge comes in marshaling that energy and enthusiasm from a still inexperienced workforce. The federal leaders who are maximizing their millennials don’t embrace any flashy new “flavor of the month” management techniques. They perform the basics of leadership and management exceptionally well.

Here are some ideas for managing millennials:

· Paint a picture of the not-too-distant future – While entry-level jobs can be less than glamorous, they contribute to the agency’s mission and to an individuals’ professional development. I spent the early part of my career answering phones on Capitol Hill. I wanted to be drafting legislation, but the job allowed me to learn about the issues, while also teaching me patience, customer service and calm under pressure – skills I frequently draw upon today. Help your folks understand that the experience and skills they’re building will be invaluable later on. 

· Satisfy their hunger for learning – Accustomed to finding any piece of information at a moment’s notice (whether through Google, Facebook or Twitter), millennials are eager to learn quickly. An even more rapid approach to learning new facts, not to mention the best ways of navigating our federal government, is through conversations with those who’ve been there and done that. Encourage your young guns to look for learning opportunities every time they interact with their colleagues, functional experts or senior leaders. And be certain that your senior leaders make the time to answer their questions.

· Channel their problem-solving capacity – The next time you’re handed a special assignment, asked to submit names for a special task force or simply need to solve a complex management problem, reach out to your millennials as well as to your experts. Your millennials’ energy and fresh perspective are likely to generate ideas others with more experience may not have considered. Your longer-tenured employees can then determine the best ways of making the new initiatives happen by virtue of their experience.

· Give them what they want: feedback – Regularly sit down with the individuals on your team to process their experience and other on-the-job learning to ensure that they’re mining the opportunities around them. Ask provocative questions about how they’re learning to be a leader based on the examples in the agency. See whether they would act differently if confronted with similar issues to those of the leaders in your agency. Recognize that their experience will help position them to be better leaders when their time comes. 

What are you doing to engage your millennials or prepare them for future leadership opportunities? If you’re one of those up-and-comers ready to make a difference, how are you maximizing your learning opportunities? Please share your ideas by leaving a comment or emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Feb 06, 2012 at 4:02 PM

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