Coaching Style Matters in Managing Millennials

Perks pale in comparison to challenging job responsibilities for Gen Y employees. Learning coaching basics can make the difference between mere compliance and active contribution and problem solving.

Forget any assumption that great pay will result in superior performance. In an April 2007 New York Times article it was revealed that today's MBA students aren't listing compensation as their top job priority. As important as work/life concerns are to them, that topic isn't even top of the list. What matters most now: "Challenging Responsibilities," weighing in at 64 percent, is a full 16 percent more important than compensation (48 percent) and 19 percent more important than work/life balance (45 percent). And though they all might claim greening the planet as a shared value, all other attributes, such as contribution to society, ethics, travel and collegial interaction, rated no higher than mid-20s.

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As much media attention as has been devoted to understanding Millennials, their need to be challenged and given responsibility has been underplayed in favor of the more over-the-top expectations for perks such as on-the-job massage, corporate-casual attire and flextime. But feeling tested and empowered matters greatly. Perhaps as a result of the era in which their adult consciousness began to take shape, namely the dotcom boom, Millennials have a sense that experiencing their own capabilities is the most important aspect of going to work every day.

How can a 20-something with little experience and lots of opinion possibly be given impactful responsibility without incurring huge risk? You as their manager have the task of making that work in support of their contribution to your objectives. Coaching-based dialogue is a learnable technique that offers a method for you to tap into this desire to contribute without gambling on outcomes critical to your organization's performance. Consider these differences in management techniques:

With a population as enthralled with their own sense of potential, it is easy to see why supervising and mentoring comes across as deadening and unexciting, and why the invitation to think intelligently, plan well and execute masterfully is one many of the new best and brightest aren't willing to live or work without. This is real-time learning by doing, calling to mind the words of Confucius:"I see and I remember, I do and I understand."

Theirs is different from Boomer mentality and post-Boomer mentality. According to Dr. Judith Bardwick, author of One Foot Out the Door, Boomers didn't need such passion-based reasons to stay in their jobs, much less do so with a sense of engagement. With their more recent collective memory of wartime strife and prewar joblessness, Boomers are hard-wired to value the safety and security of even having a job much more than the new breed.

So just how can you adapt some coaching-based skills to encourage Millennials' best contribution? Try the following:

  1. Ask what issues are of particular interest. By identifying where their desire to contribute is, you are one step further to accessing their energy and passion. If they are too green to even respond to that question, give them an overview of pressing challenges and see where their interest is sparked.
  2. Once the challenge is identified, ask them what, in their eyes, is particularly powerful about the issue and what they think the relevant factors to be considered are. This is a moment for you to listen and actively resist any comments that can be expressed with phrases such as "I think you should...", or "I would...".
  3. Allow them to struggle. Signs of struggle don't indicate a lack of ability—this means they are firmly in the zone of "challenging responsibility." With questions that begin with "How" or "What," invite them to identify further steps to uncover information and possible solutions for the issue, then send them to take action with a firm deadline to report back with recommendations.
  4. Hold them to the deadline and deliverables. Letting this slide will actually diminish their trust in you and their sense of value to the organization, both of which will deaden their desire to contribute.
  5. Investigate their process and "ahas" with as much attention as you do the actual outcome of their work. For Millennials to sense they are flexing and developing new skills, it is important that the process creates new awareness that goes beyond technical information. This requires attention to insights that lead to self-knowledge and wisdom.

By mixing these conversations and assignments in with the more supervisory and mentoring aspects of the relationship, you'll both satisfy an important need in Millennials and reinforce their long-term potential to contribute as true leaders. Because a study by The Conference Board revealed that 97 percent of executives feel incompetence in their assigned roles, aside from retaining and optimizing your new best of breed, isn't it time we cultivated leaders who thrive in the midst of the unknown?

Tevis Gale is founder of Balance Integration Corp., which provides work/life balance and creativity tools for numerous leading organizations, including Google, AOL, Viacom, Yahoo, Edelman Public Relations, Disney, Cleary-Gottlieb and the Young Presidents Organization (YPO).

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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