Tomorrow’s Leaders

A wave is quickly approaching America’s workforce. Whether that wave impacts U.S. businesses like low tide at Myrtle Beach or a raging tsunami in the Pacific may be determined by how managers prepare for what is ahead in the next five years. Some experts predict that within the next five years, over half of this country’s largest companies will lose 50% of their senior management to retirement.

It’s not a huge secret that if you do the math the post-World War II Baby Boomer Generation that included an estimated 77.5 million Americans born between 1943 and 1961 now has an average age of 59 years old. So why is this important? It’s important because the generation to follow, Generation X, consists of only 50 million people born between 1962 and 1980. Less than two-thirds the population of its preceding generation, Generation X may not provide the numbers needed to keep our businesses properly equipped. Generation Y, or the Millennial Generation, already knows this. You should, too, because they are over 80 million strong and they are already in the workforce.

Learning Y

So what does the agriculture retailer need to know about its newest employees to survive the incoming wave? Here is some insight and a few tips to help weather the storm:

First, know that when it comes to Generation Y employees, you must be firm yet flexible as a manager. Picture the pole vault in the Olympic Games. The pole must be strong and sturdy enough to support the weight of the vaulted athlete, yet flexible enough to catapult the vaulted individual over the high bar. Generation Y didn’t grow up the way previous generations did, so they have different ways of thinking and going about business. They will challenge you as a manager, and challenge the way things have been done in the past. You must know that they are not challenging your intelligence, integrity or values. They are simply looking for an opportunity to contribute new ideas and help the overall team efforts in any way they can, and they have been taught to do so for as long as they can remember.

They also have a different set of priorities and values. When it comes to life, they place a higher priority on family than they do on career. As a matter of fact, a February 2010 study by the Pew Research Center entitled “The Millennials: Confident, Connected, Open to Change” found that over 52% of Generation Y sees being a good parent as the No. 1 priority in their life. Their next highest priorities related to success in marriage, helping others in need, owning a home and living a religious life. Having a high-paying career finished 5th. When you take into account the fact that this is the first generation that has spent their entire lives with divorce rates at an all-time high, stories about drugs in elementary schools and homeless people on the news, school shootings and child abuse in the headlines, it may prove less surprising that their priorities are focused first on family.

So what motivates this new generation of employees? They’ve been taught teamwork concepts since before they could talk, so team projects are always motivating. They also enjoy seeking out small challenges as opportunities to shine and show off their abilities. Special projects that appeal to their interests outside of work may also get their motors running. Your opportunity here as a manager may be to delegate a technology-based project to a Gen Y employee and leverage their love for all things high-tech. Projects outside of the realm of the ordinary and beyond the traditional scope of their job description can often be excellent motivators, breaking up the monotony and increasing morale.

Generation Y grew up challenging everyone from their parents to their professors. Not because they lacked respect for authority, but because they constantly seek information. This is a generation that grew up with technological advances that put information at their fingertips, and available 24/7. Thusly, their expectation for the availability of feedback from their managers is that it comes to them as quickly as possible. I can’t stress enough the importance of timely communication with Generation Y employees.

With that information also comes a warning. While constant communication is welcomed, micro-management is not. Generation Y employees grew up without keeping score in Little League, working on class assignments as team members, and working with teachers largely as mentors rather than authority figures. They welcome a mentor and will quickly reject a micro-manager, so communication must be constructive and not overbearing. Again, this is where your own flexibility becomes important as you weigh the balance between providing employees’ independence and performing due diligence and follow up.

When it comes to the idea of retaining these employees for the long haul managers should be braced for a shift in the traditional idea of loyalty. It’s not to say that company loyalty does not exist anymore, but with the focus shift within this generation to family being priority number one it would be unrealistic to expect an employee of this generation to put company loyalty ahead of what is best for their family. This means more than dollars and cents on a paycheck. It means upward mobility within a company, it means benefits and time off, it means being close to a good school in a safe community, it means being able to be home for important family events. Something as simple as giving an employee their birthday as a day off, or excusing them from half a day of work so they can attend their child’s Special Person Day at Kindergarten go a long way.

No Micro Management

It is commonly perceived that Generation Y feels a sense of entitlement, and isn’t willing to put in the work to be successful. Often, this may cause a manager to become overbearing and feeling that they need to be following up constantly, or “holding their hand.” This generalization can prove counterproductive when it comes to retaining good employees.

To many people, the term “work” doesn’t always mean an action, but a place. To Generation Y, it is an action. They are technologically savvy, and are engaged 24/7. Their cell phones are almost an appendage. To them, work can be anywhere where they are, so long as they can get a signal on their phone or laptop. It would be hazardous to assume that an employee was not ambitious or focused simply because they aren’t putting in extra hours at work. If an employee is able to balance their work and their life by answering customer emails during timeout at their child’s soccer game or putting together a potential client list on a laptop while the kids do their homework, wouldn’t you call that efficiency?

Another thing to consider is that a sense of entitlement may not be as prevalent within our industry. Many candidates seeking permanent employment in agriculture come from some type of an agriculture background, and often from small Midwestern farm communities. You would be hard-pressed to find many people who had grown up on a farm or spent their summers detassling corn or bailing hay that would tell you that working in agriculture is easy. The values of this industry alone could easily prevent members of Generation Y to embrace the idea that simply because technology makes their life easier, less effort is needed to be successful.

In closing, managers should realize two important things regarding this topic: First, know that no one is asking you to change the way you do business or to walk on eggshells around Gen Y employees. This information is simply to prepare you for what is coming our way. Second, and most important, managers need to remember that when you talk about an entire generation of people made up of over 80 million Americans, many who are still in schools trying to define themselves, please remember that these are generalizations. A composite of what makes them tick and what they do. Remember that all people are different, and will have different values and react to situations differently.

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