3 Leadership Lessons We Can Learn from Gen Y

A third of U.S. employees feel chronically overworked. 52% of U.S. families say work interferes with their family or home responsibilities. More than 54% of U.S. Americans say they will look for a better job once the economy improves.

I could prattle on with statistics like the above. Let me first give you context for citing such disappointing numbers. The workplace is under siege by a growing sentiment that the way we’re working is not longer effective. The Great Recession has catapulted the need to change how we work into our conversations.

The workplace is under siege by a growing sentiment that the way we’re working is not longer effective

The question is, however, what needs to change? The simplest answer is you. Me. We all need to change how we approach the way we work. And for those of us as manager leaders, we’ve got to show up as leaders newly, differently. The above statistics are warning signs of wear-and-tear.

And this is where our Gen Y employees come into play. This generation is heralded for many things – some good and some not. Of course both are value judgments. But there are kernels of truth hidden in those judgments. And if we pulled them out and evaluate them against the changing context that surrounds our organizations, we’ll find keen leadership lessons any person from any generation can learn from and be more effective in their role as manager leader.

Collaborate virtually

Gen Y is the first generation to be raised with widely available technology. I believe it’s too early to know exactly what the implications of this are for organizations. However, the number of tech start-ups is an indicator of things to come. The Millennials’ tech-savviness can teach us that collaboration no longer needs to be physical face-to-face. Gen Y’ers are adept at collaborating via text, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, even instant messaging.

Collaboration no longer needs to be physical face-to-face

The lesson for all other generations is get comfortable with real time collaboration, crowdsourced ideas that expand beyond the hallways and water coolers. Many of us are clinging to the outdated belief that physical proximity cannot be topped.

Forget about tenure

As a cohort, Gen Y is stereotyped to be impatient with corporate hierarchies. In my personal experience I’ve seen this to be true and not true. Hidden, however, in this viewpoint is an important lesson. Business demands can’t wait anymore for managers to award the best opportunities to those with the longest tenure. The opportunities go to those with the skill sets. And skill sets and tenure are no longer equivalent.

Business demands can’t wait anymore for managers to award the best opportunities to those with the longest tenure

Today’s business problems are complex and need fast solutions. As more Boomers retire, tenure’s reign will come to an end.

Rethink work

Gen Y is notorious for wanting more flexible work schedules. With mobile technology and cloud solutions widely available, resistance to alternative work schedules is becoming a barrier to progress.

All manager leaders must get to a similar understanding of why Gen Y looks at flexible work arrangements as a given. With globalization a force driving corporate strategy, allowing employees to choose to work nights and weekends over day shifts makes sense. Working from a cafe today and hoteling onsite tomorrow is smart business.

With globalization a force driving corporate strategy, allowing employees to work nights and weekends makes sense

Those of us who grew up in corporate-land believing work occurs 8-5 need to learn to rethink how, where and when work gets done. Millennials get this. It’s time the rest of us do, too.

Top reasons employees stay with a company can be reduced down to two needs make the workplace flexible and help make work meaningful. These two needs are desired by any generation.


Continue reading our New Leadership series with A Leadership Challenge to Those Starting a New Career

Graphic by Jordan Horstman

Change Leader | Speaker | Writer Co-founder and CEO of ExchangeGain. Passionately explores the space where business & humanity intersect. Promoter of workplace optimism. Believes work can be a source of joy. Top ranked leadership blogger by Huffington Post. The Optimistic Workplace (AMACOM) out 2015

  • Joe Flood

    I’m Gen X but share the frustration all generations have with the way we work now. Gathering in one location for a specific set of hours to work just doesn’t make sense anymore. Whether it’s kids, classes or other reasons, people lead complicated lives that can’t be contained in the hours outside 9-5. Smart companies allow employee flexibility to let people get the work done whenever and wherever.

  • Michelle Pokorny

    Hi Shawn. I appreciate and agree with many of these observations. There seems to be a shift in what increasingly networked employees and consumers alike want in their experience with organizations and brands – employees want to contribute to, collarborate on meaningful work, be part of a ‘community’. I don’t know that I view the attributes above as exclusive to Gen Y, however. We conducted a study which identified employee’s primary, personal value segment. By values, what one’s primary internal priorities, goals are driven by. The segments were Drivers (primarily achievement, power driven), Altruists (benevolent, want to make a difference), Stabilizers (more driven by tradition, security, conformity) and Pioneers (driven by self-direction, stimulation). Interestingly, respondents 25-34 were more often Drivers. Pioneers were more often full time and more often remote workers. Just some examples, but my point is that our core values may be more indicative of what is motivating to us in a work situation than our age.

    I think the comfort level with technology likely has some age differences, but I’d submit how much I want to collaborate might also be more of a value attribute than age-based. One last thought, the interesting thing about having flexibility in when and where we work is the flip side. I sense people often feel tethered to work, or expected to be accessible 24/7 with smart phones, remote access, etc. It will be interesting to see how the workplace storms and norms around that reality.

  • Roberta Budvietas

    Connectivity is definitely changing the world as is the lack of wanting to be in a job that has restrictions ot creativity. It is a real challenge with many baby boomers and Gen X the demands of connectivity. The social element of working in a company has definitely changed with the internet and virtual meeting opportunities and the desire to get the boring bits done

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  • Jane Graybeal

    Hi Shawn! I really enjoyed this article and thought you made some great points. As a Millennial myself, I definitely think that all three of these are insights that are right on target. I actually work for a company (WilsonHCG) that’s based out of Florida, but I’m located in Tahoe myself and I love the fact that they embrace the idea of employees working virtually, and I think that it’s a huge reason that Gen Y comprises a major part of our organization! Also, I just followed you on Twitter and noticed you’re in Sacramento–not too far from me!

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