Sometimes the differences among generations are exaggerated. Obviously everyone in the greatest generation wasn’t great, and all millennials don’t expect instant recognition of their abilities. But at the same time, some very real differences are apparent when it comes to getting the job done.
Experts from management consultants to sociologists agree that understanding such differences is an important ingredient in successful collaboration. For many planners, this has implications for both achieving best results within the events team and in dealing with all the people involved in executing successful meetings. And with more and more millennials taking on key roles, a focus on this group seems unavoidable.
Just who fits under this label? According to generational expert Chuck Underwood, founder and principal of The Generational Imperative Inc. in Miamisburg, Ohio, millennials were born from 1982 through 1999, meaning essentially those currently aged 18 to 35. Underwood says that as a group, millennials hold promise to be an excellent career generation, citing descriptors such as idealistic, ethical, compassionate, team player, tech-savvy, a desire to save the world and strong self-esteem.
“To the surprise of many, the world’s first full-blown technology generation actually craves human, eye-to-eye interaction and group dynamics.”
— Chuck Underwood
“But they’ve gotten off to a very rocky start with employers, “ he says, noting that employers tend to list shortcomings such as a flawed sense of entitlement, unrealistic expectations, weak work ethic, constant job-hopping, lack of accountability and as much damaged by technology as they are helped by it.
“The bottom line is that just like every prior generation of Americans, millennials bring to work each day unique core values that emerged from unique formative years’ times and teachings, most of which were beyond their control,” Underwood says. He advocates millennial-specific training for employers in order to recruit the best from their generation, onboard them smoothly, train them appropriately, manage and inspire them, and retain them.
Kathy Miller, CEO of Total Event Resources, a Chicago meeting and event planning company, says that on the whole these workers are eager for advancement. Yet they are not especially open to being closely managed, a combination that may be difficult for managers to reconcile. At the same time, their ambitions can often be harnessed to the benefit of the organization.
“One of the biggest challenges in managing millennials is their desire to get ahead quickly,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong — this can be a huge advantage when you are a growing organization and are looking for talent that has the potential to do the job yet not necessarily the experience. You can put them into situations where they are eager to learn and to advance their career by giving them the opportunity to prove themselves.”
Miller cautions against generalizing too much about this group, noting as an example that those on the older side of the millennial age range can be more patient than younger counterparts. She also cites their interest in giving back to the community and in making a difference in the world.
“If you are looking to attract this generation, it’s important that you can show them what you do to give back,” she says. A light supervisory hand can also be beneficial.
“They are also a generation that does not want to be micromanaged,” she says. “I find that it’s important to give them enough information to manage the task or project at hand and then let them run with it. They want to do it their way, so allow them to think for themselves and show you a different way.”
Miller, herself a baby boomer, adds that recognizing her own generation’s approach isn’t the only valid one also is essential.
“We have these strong work ethics and beliefs that we had to prove ourselves by long hours and doing things a certain way,” she says. “That doesn’t mean that it’s the way for them.”
Sometimes this means letting different generations do things differently within the same overall group, an approach that can be applied to clients as well as employees. She recalls a corporate holiday event that her firm produced where there was a cross of millennials and older generations.
“We had to establish an event that would serve all,” she says. The owners, who were hosting the event, wanted an evening that was more on the formal side. The millennials, on the other hand, were looking for something less formal and wanted to continue the event long after the dinner was done.
“We accomplished both by having the formal dinner and then throwing an after-party for those who wanted to hang out,” Miller says.
Another reality is higher turnover than might be expected with previous generations.
“The days of hiring the younger generation and having them stay with your organization for five to 10-plus years are gone,” Miller says. She advises keeping this point in perspective and adjusting by creating training efficiencies that will help in responding to the higher turnover that may occur due to millennials’ desire to advance their career. “Having these processes and procedures in place allows you to be able to train new employees easily,” she says.
Jill Anonson, events solution manager for ITA Group, an event management firm in West Des Moines, Iowa, says it’s important to realize that millennials view work as an extension of their lives.
“For them, it’s not about work-life balance,” she says. “It’s just life. They’re looking for flexible work schedules, and they want the ability to work from where it makes sense for them. Some people work better from home or from Starbucks, so why not let them?”
She adds that wellness of all forms — physical, financial, spiritual and emotional — is important for millennials and they want an employer that cherishes those values. This includes wanting to be part of designing solutions to the problems they face, whether that means taking time to do volunteer work or providing input on the trajectory of the company.
Anonson says that from the meeting planner’s perspective, a different style of supervision than is typical with older workers may be more effective.
“Millennials aren’t looking for a boss,” she says. “They want a coach. If you’re managing members of a planning team who are millennials, this is an important distinction to make.”
One element of this approach is encouraging face-to-face or phone conversations to avoid confusion or misunderstanding.
“Many millennials would rather shoot an email or text to avoid a phone conversation, but a lot of nuance can be lost in these mediums,” she says.
She notes that it’s also important to reaffirm to millennials the importance of balance.
“Many millennials favor a relaxed schedule and value flexibility in their work, but they can’t miss out on crucial meetings and planning components,” she says. “Enforce the fact that the client’s schedule and needs come before their own.”
Each year, ITA Group holds a week-long conference for its sales team, which is capped off by an afternoon meeting for all team members. As a new strategy this past year, a focus group was held with the goal of making the event more appealing to attendees. While an array of ages and tenures was represented, about 60 percent of those in the group were millennials.
“What we learned from them helped us create one of the most impactful conferences in recent memory,” Anonson says “They didn’t want a typical annual meeting where executives discussed slide after slide of financial numbers, so we trimmed the financial talk to just one slide of a two-hour presentation.”
The millennials let it be known that they preferred variety in the way content was delivered. They encouraged mixing speaker panels and videos along with the traditional keynotes, as well as including some humor in the presentations. They also asked for a larger, long-term vision and wanted uplifting news about the path the company was taking.
At the same time, Anonson advises against making overly broad generalizations about any age group. This applies not just to supervising staff members, but also designing engaging conference programs and activities.
“There are 60-year-olds who want to go rock climbing, just as there are 20-somethings who want to tour an art museum. From local arts to neighborhood restaurants, millennials and baby boomers alike want more choices, individualized experiences and noteworthy, shareable adventures they couldn’t get anywhere else.”
At the International School of Hospitality in Las Vegas, administrators have identified some basic preferences shown by students from this generation who enroll in a conference management and event planning program.
“We have found that millennial students tend to favor the creative elements, where they can express themselves and do projects their own way, as they see fit, in their own order,” says Donnell G. Bayot, Ph.D., the school’s director of academic affairs. “It is okay with our instructors as we want to make projects as realistic as possible. It is not okay, however, in that millennials find pragmatic details less important and have this general belief that it will fall in line, eventually.”
He notes that certain key elements in meeting planning, such as budgeting, are not as flexible as millennials might prefer and that educators have to take this into account.
“Millennials like to strike out on their own and take the future in their own hands,” Bayot adds. “They prefer their own way, finding their own answers and don’t like routine. Managing millennial employees requires employers to understand their thought process.”
Chris Cavanaugh, CMO of Freeman, an event logistics company with 90 worldwide locations including Dallas, Texas, says efforts to foster collaboration can pay off with this age group.
“Millennials enjoy and appreciate being a part of a group and managers should keep that in mind as they plan office spaces and assignments,” he says. “This generation enjoys open and collaborative office spaces where they can bounce ideas and brainstorm. Managers should be easily accessible as well.”
He adds that they tend to care deeply about the world around them and “work to live” versus “living to work,” as is typical of their parents.
“They are open and interested in world travel and care more about experience than climbing the corporate ladder,” he says. “Work-life balance is a top priority and ample vacation time is important to them.”
One point that may be misunderstood is the importance that technology plays.
“Millennials have been misrepresented as technologically savvy,” Cavanaugh says. “The reality is they are technology dependent. Technology helps enable their highly connected and, dare we say, social lives.”
In managing this group, it’s important to keep in mind that technology is essential to their connection with the world,” he says. “Leverage this and ask them for their opinions. They want to be consulted, they want to be heard. And they have a unique and valuable point of view.”
Cavanaugh recalls a recent incident when his company launched a new corporate website and developed a comprehensive plan for training their team. A young woman in the group didn’t wait for the training but dove right in and became proficient on her own quickly, working on her own time.
“This to me was indicative of the type of self-directed, technology-proficient and interest-led attitude from millennials,” he says. “She didn’t do this work to gain points or get a promotion — she was genuinely interested, motivated and took matters into her own hands.”
Underwood advises making adjustments that take advantage of positive traits as well as addressing attitudes that older generations may find annoying.
“They’re a big-thinking, big-dreaming generation that wants a genuine stake in the outcome of the planning team’s work,” he says. “Managers should give them that voice.” He notes that unlike older Generation X (ages 36 to 52 in 2017) whose members are excellent self-starters and work effectively without a great deal of supervision, millennials actually want guidance and reinforcement. So it’s advisable to give them clear parameters and structure. He also recommends giving them opportunities to work within groups.
“To the surprise of many, the world’s first full-blown technology generation actually craves human, eye-to-eye interaction and group dynamics,” he says. “So don’t assume all they want is to work in an isolated cubicle, alone.”
At the same time, there can be problems with specific expectations.
“Their track record thus far is one of not hitting deadlines,” Underwood says. “So emphasize deadlines, make it clear they’re responsible for hitting them and enforce your directive. Elders constantly bent the rules for this generation during their youth, so many ‘mils’ have come to believe there are no hard boundaries to anything.”
Jennifer Folsom, chief of corporate development for Summit Consulting, a Washington, DC, data analytics firm where the average age of staff members is 28, suggests that over-communication can be a successful strategy.
“We’ve found that our millennials demand flexible schedules and telecommuting just as much if not more than our Generation X parents, she says. “Whether it’s walking their dog or training for an ultra-marathon, life outside of the office is a priority.”
Frequent feedback is also in order.
“These are people who get 100 likes for posting a cat video on Twitter — they demand constant input and feedback,” she says. “Previous professional generations are happy with year-end reviews or monthly check-ins with a manager, but we find that millennials need near-constant feedback, both good and bad, on their work product and professional behavior.” Folsom adds that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it prompts managers to provide more feedback that in turn improves the organization.
Of course dealing with generational differences is a never-ending challenge, and it won’t stop with millennials.
“Millennials have been in the work force for a while,” Anonson says. “A whole new generation, Generation Z, is coming in. It’s very important to start looking at and preparing for this group, as they’ll surpass baby boomers and millennials in numbers very quickly.” C&IT