By Mike Cook
“The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan.”
One Sunday last November, I read an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by William Deresiewicz, titled “Generation Sell,” from which I took the quote opened with here. The words of the author have stuck with me from that day on.
In the article, Deresiewicz took me through his analysis of a millennial generation that seems to be so troubling to work with or even understand for many managers today. His central insight was that this is a generation of entrepreneurs.
“Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business. Every artistic or moral aspiration—music, food, good works, what have you—is expressed in those terms.”
In Deresiewicz’ view, the millennials operate with:
“…a distrust of large organizations, including government, as well as the sense, a legacy of the last decade, that it’s every man for himself.”
So their entrepreneurial inclinations are driven as much from a self- preservation strategy as previous generations were driven by the desire for security.
While millennials view the small business as the idealized social form of the current times, many of them continue to work in our mainstream organizations.
They literally walk among us, having learned how to play the game by developing an ability to fit in rather than drop out and assume the risks of business ownership.
Given the continued premium we place on compliance, it is likely that we have not tapped the entrepreneurial instincts of this generation, and likely as not, this is why they will eventually leave us. As managers we might do ourselves an enormous favor by asking not how we can get them to be like us, but rather how can we give them reason to stay and invest themselves in our future.
In the very same month, the Nov. 14 issue of the New Yorker magazine featured a Malcolm Gladwell piece on Steve Jobs, titled “The Tweaker.” In the article, Gladwell identifies Jobs’ genius not so much as that of an inventor but truly more of a “tweaker.” By definition:
“The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world. The tweaker inherits things as they are, and has to push and pull them toward some more nearly perfect solution. That is not a lesser task.”
As managers we might prefer a team of “tweakers” to a team of inventors, since inventors are notorious for lacking commercial instincts and often times are satisfied with proving out rather than perfecting their ideas. Cases in point abound, but suffice for now for me to remind us all of the boon Xerox research has been to the technology industry, if not necessarily to itself.
So if Deresiewicz was on to something, and from my knowledge of my own 24-year-old son I’d say he was dead on, it is incumbent on us to find ways for our millennial employees to contribute by “being in charge” of something they view as important. This will have less to do with salary category or titles than it will with the idea of having a lot of say in something important to our business; maybe not the final say but certainly a lot leading up to it.
Turning our millennial employees loose to “tweak” might seem like an invitation to chaos. It might, however, just be a formula for the engagement and retention of our best and brightest.
What can you do to give your millennial employees more of a say in the business and an invitation to make what is working even better than it is now?
Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He also publishes a weekly blog at www.heartofengagement.com.