Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, October 24, 2016
I do some executive coaching, and while most of my paying clients are not millennials, of late, I have begun to consider mentoring some of the younger folks – and it is a challenge. So to get guidance I turned to David French’s article in the National Review, “They’re Delicate as Snowflakes but Not So Harmless.”
French starts with a story about a debate at Brown University this past year. The subject was the “alleged campus rape crisis” with two opposing views being presented, and the next day, Brown set up a “safe space” on campus to help students recuperate from the intensity of the debate. In this safe space, there were coloring books, cookies, Play-Doh and videos of puppies. (I am not making this up.) The course description in the catalogue was retitled “Coddling 101,” a two-semester course. Required material includes bringing your own “blankie.”
The secondary theme of his article is that these snowflakes are not spontaneously generated; “they are formed largely by parents who have loved their children into the messes they have become.” The confusion in the parent-child syndrome of late seems to be a tilt towards “being friends with your offspring” – and this carries through to their early employment opportunities.
And the final theme of his article is that these very same millennials are hyper-aggressive, polarized, filled with anger and very unwilling to compromise and act in a hostile manner towards ideological opponents. To get attention, they protest and attack and seek conflict.
When they were children, they screamed as loudly as they could for Mom and Dad. But these very same millennials can no longer turn to their parents to enlist their support to rage against the machine, they are now in your workplace and instead they come to you with their anger and disappointment and laments of unfairness.
I have to be careful here, because it is easy to say, “suck it up and get back to work,” but I am only partially of that school of thought. I am more inclined to try listening and to see if I can turn their anger into profit. But listening is not abdicating, and the “I am not your pal, I am your boss” is a sentence that managers often have trouble saying.
In classic jujitsu, you turn the opponent’s strength and weight against them to disable their attack. The challenge for the manager vs. the millennial is to channel their anger into a force for good without being dismissive of legitimate concerns. Several of my companies have a healthy dose of millennials, and by and large, I love them. Wickedly smart and creative, but sometimes they can make you crazy – such as “I need a better title or can I attend the executive management meeting, I want to listen.” The executive coaching programs in the business schools need to offer a course on the care and feeding of millennials.
If you and your co-founder are both very similar in age and orientation, then there is much less conflict as you begin your company, but in mature companies, the search for the common ground is often not so common. The manager is often left with only two choices — “my way or the highway” or he abdicates and marginalizes in order to keep the peace — the equivalent of kicking the can down the road (in political speak). Bob, weave, deflect and keep going.
Look, we all know that corporate culture is subtle. You can’t buy it with venture dollars, and there are countless stories of leaders being unable to work together or leaving “to pursue personal projects” or more bluntly, getting fired. French says, “the fragile generation will either exhibit greater aggression as they flail for the utopia that can never come, or have a rediscovery of the virtue of perseverance.” The authority figures in the company (the management) cannot guarantee enduring joy and success. The Tiger mom can’t go to school with her young.
For us older folks, learning how to motivate and energize the younger worker is not just foosball and pizza, it is finding a place to dance that mixes our waltz of the cotillion with the hip hop of the aughts. Our job is to hear the music, and then, uninhibited and unembarrassed, you need to move your two left feet to the beat.
Rule No. 484: If you want a friend, get a dog.