Managers and leaders now have to cope with a changing workforce dynamic and dealing with the Gen Xs and Gen Ys takes a different mind-set. Cameron Cooper talks to Peter Sheahan, a recognised guru of the Y generation.
Peter Sheahan is bewildered. Why, he asks, do corporate managers go out of their way to alienate staff who quit?
If someone says they’re going to resign, the reaction is ‘Give me your laptop, give us your phone, done, you’re out’, says Sheahan, one of Australia’s new breed of business advisers and the author of a new book, Generation Y: Thriving (and Surviving) With Generation Y at Work.
The chastised worker leaves and never comes back. Most managers suck at exit interviews, according to Sheahan who offers an alternative line to be delivered to departing staff: Thanks very much. We really appreciate what you did. If you want to come back, give us a call.
Sheahan is hot property in a business community that is confronting a serious talent crisis and striving to attract, develop and retain young talent. With research indicating that the four million Australians in Generation Y those born between 1978 and 1996 will have 29 different jobs across five different industries in their working lives, retaining young staff in a single position will be nigh on impossible.
Don’t try, Sheahan says. That’s the wrong paradigm. We should be trying to retain them in the organisation, not in a specific position, and that will involve, among other things, giving them the opportunity to move laterally to seek out new learning experiences.
More important, he argues, is trying to get a positive return on staff investments and endeavouring to retain their knowledge and intellectual property even after they resign.
He goes further, suggesting companies should develop an alumni of past workers. Perhaps they could still be invited to their former company’s functions. And maybe they could have first rights to job offers posted on an intranet.
You’re just kept in the loop But if I didn’t have a good experience when I left, am I going to come back? No way!
The unusual twist with Sheahan, 25, is that he is a member of Generation Y, making him well qualified to educate Generation X (1965 1977) and the baby boomers (1946 1964) about his peers.
He is regarded as the nation’s authority on Generation Y of which there are about 4.5 million in Australia and draws from a deep pool of knowledge. His research taps into the minds and experiences of more than 165,000 people, and he has led more than 1500 presentations and workshops across Australia . In recent months, Sheahan has addressed AIM members in most states on his Gen Y research.
Most managers, according to Sheahan, have no clue how to manage Gen Y. Yet it is imperative to get an accurate insight into their thoughts: And for Christ’s sake don’t get it from someone who is 55.
Central to the Gen Y debate is Australia ‘s talent squeeze. Unemployment is at historic lows and elite executives are jetting off to the likes of London , New York and Tokyo chasing life experiences and big pay packets. Without this loss of brainpower, Sheahan says no one would be wringing their hands over Gen Y.
They’d have so many people to choose from that if someone came in with a bad attitude you’d say Stick it, I’m going to find someone else’.
Power has shifted from the institution to the individual.
It’s not about how many resources or how much labour you can leverage, it’s about how much talent you can leverage. It’s about knowledge.
The stereotype of Generation Y is not always flattering: they are lifestyle-centred, impatient, sceptical, street-smart, socially aware, independent, tech-savvy and perhaps a touch over-confident. As they rise through the ranks, a clash of cultures is testing workplaces.
It’s becoming an increasingly big problem because this is a generation with truly different values who are not prepared to work the 90 hours a week for 20 years to become a partner in an accounting firm or a law firm, Sheahan says.
It is a like-it-or-lump-it philosophy. They will organise their lives at work through SMS and email messages. They will download music from the Internet at work. They will have coffee three times a day if they so choose.
‘Who cares’ is the attitude, Sheahan says. I’m going to get my work done and what does it matter if I did it in five hours or eight?
For the 40-plus age group, this attitude does not always sit well. They have done the hard slog and are now seeing 22-year-old upstarts blow in demanding the world, a pay rise oh, and an overseas posting, now!
Sheahan explains: It’s not an error on behalf of the generation or necessarily on behalf of the managers, but people are finding a big mismatch It’s about power. People who have worked 25 years to get to the top don’t want to let go of the power they’ve got.
He has little sympathy for baby boomers as they wrestle with the challenge.
The boomers started this trend. They’re now trying to pull it back because they are in the positions of power.
Not for him
Sheahan started his career in an international accounting firm, only to discover that it was not for him. He left, and within 18 months became general manager of a successful Sydney hotel.
He has now found his passion. Through his consultancy businesses and on the public speaking circuit, he advises a blue-chip list of corporate, government and university clients: Panasonic, the Commonwealth Bank, Woolworths, the Department of Education and Science, the Queensland Department of Premier and Cabinet, the University of Technology, Sydney … The list goes on.
While his generation often gets a bad rap, Sheahan has some good news for corporations: when properly engaged Generation Y is the most creative, innovative and inspired generation yet.
This brings us to the big questions: what does Generation Y want, and how can companies ensure they get the best out of them?
Sheahan says it is time to forget the clichés of a flexible workplace and better work-life balance. That is a given. What Generation Y really wants is respect and control.
This is a generation that doesn’t respect title and position. They respect people, but they’ll only respect people who first respect them. And that’s a revolutionary concept in the workplace.
He urges companies to ‘validate’ their staff.
If you are to truly respect someone you must validate who they are, what they’ve done and the potential of where they could go.
What that does not mean is having a grading system that ranks workers from A to P (Sheahan has seen such systems in his corporate travels). And it definitely does not involve managers talking about their low-paid, front-of-office staff as ‘basket weavers’ (again, he has heard the term used in the corridors of corporate Australia ).
These are the people dealing with the client, the customer, he says, voice raising. They’re the basket weaver! Well, you know what, for a customer they’re the touch point for your organisation. And if they are just a basket weaver then you need to get your head read.
Generation Y wants rewards and recognition. Money is important, but it is not the be-all and end-all. They do, however, want to be paid what they are worth. If they perform the same job as a 40-year-old and are getting the same results, they demand the same pay.
Even accounting firms, regarded along with law firms as conservative, are getting the message about the importance of talent. One ‘big four’ accounting firm has reportedly paid a $5000 sign-on bonus for a Year 12 student to join the firm’s cadet program. It mirrors the sports world’s approach to talent scouting.
Why not? asks Sheahan. Sport has been about talent for years. When I talk about talent, people think about orchestras and sporting teams. Well, why aren’t they thinking of HR departments or accounting divisions?
While baby boomers and generations X and Y are slotted into neatly defined age brackets, Sheahan concedes that such categories are superficial.
To tell you the truth, it’s not about chronology, it’s about mindset. I’ve met 45-year-olds who have got the Gen Y mindset. They get it.
That means they value thought leadership. They do not want to give up their lives or families for ‘corporate slavery’. They want life experiences.
Sheahan has a couple of other admissions. First, he says members of Gen Y do not know everything; they lack experience and they need guidance. It sounds like heresy given his mantra, but they don’t know how to play the game and need help and understanding from older workers.
Second, he agrees that generational research is fundamentally flawed’ (yes, the very stuff that is making him famous). What he means is that not all members of Gen Y fit his mould, but what his research can do is provide assumptions and allow strategic decisions to be made.
And then let’s make some progress.
Progress is being made in the workplace around catering for Generation Y.
Westpac, for instance, has spent tens of millions of dollars on a revolutionary new workspace. And Campus MLC, the National Australia Bank’s refurbishment of office space in North Sydney for its wealth management business arm, has been hailed as the office of the future. There has also been a push for a more horizontal approach to management. Executive doors are open if they have an office.
Again, however, he urges caution: Don’t think that building a funky workspace is going to solve your problem. And don’t think promising a really great work-life balance program is going to solve your problem.
What is required is an underlying commitment to change from management a philosophy that is preached and practised. At too many companies, Sheahan says, managers actually discourage the flexible work practices that they mouth.
It is great to have a flexible starting time. However, it is useless if the boss gives you a dirty look when you do walk in at 9.50am. It is wonderful to have workspace where staff can relax over a coffee. However, it is self-defeating if bosses glare at those who take advantage of the facility.
It’s about permission, Sheahan says. And that’s where managers need to do the most work; they need to change the way they manage.
For businesses that get it wrong and alienate Generation Y, there is a cost. Sheahan says they will pay in the form of higher recruitment costs and lower returns.
I don’t think it’s catastrophic. I just think it’s a path to mediocrity.
Sheahan has a couple of tips for communicating with Generation Y. First, be authentic. Do not try to be cool for the sake of winning them over. They will see through it. And second, it is a cliché but do not repeat not judge a book by its cover. Ties are not in the Sheahan wardrobe. Mohawks are sometimes part of his look.
Sheahan laughs that many senior executives often look at him quizzically when they set eyes on him at a conference before they realise that he is the keynote speaker.
It’s not the information age any more, he says, It’s the creative age.
Organisations ill-prepared for Gen Y: survey
More than 58 per cent of organisations in Australia have experienced a shift in the expectations of employers and their Generation Y employees, but only 21 per cent believe they are managing this shift successfully, according to a survey commissioned by recruitment, technology and human resource management organisation, Ross Human Directions (RHD).
The survey of senior HR and operational executives from 65 organisations across a range of industries, found that 32 per cent of organisations believe there is tension between managers and Generation Y employees.
It also found that 12 per cent of respondents claim their leaders just can’t understand the work ethic of the younger generation while another 20 per cent believe the expectations of managers and younger employees do not reconcile, leading to frustration for both groups.
The survey, ‘Thriving (and surviving) with Generation Y in the workforce’, provides insight into how organisations are acknowledging, understanding, and managing the expectations of the youngest generation in the workforce.
Diane Moynihan, Director of marketing of RHD, said the survey demonstrates that organisations are beginning to acknowledge the values, beliefs and expectations of Generation Y employees, but are not quite sure how to attract, retain and manage Generation Y, or what the impact might be on their business.