Workplace 2.0: Motivating and Managing Millennials

This article was published in November, but it’s still timely and over the past few months I’ve read a lot of blog posts on the web that remind me of it. So even though I wrote it, I figure it might be a good idea to dredge it up again for a whole new set of readers who weren’t subscribing to the blog back then.

What motivates young people isn’t the promise of a distant retirement check thirty or forty years after they’ve given all they have to a company that doesn’t let them have a piece of the pie. The first thing you need to keep in mind is the fundamental idea of ownership.

You don’t have to give up stock in your company, to give a young worker a feeling that s(he) is contributing to themselves, as well as the firm’s bottom line. But you do need to invest in their sense of desire to contribute in meaningful ways to institutions that matter. To them, coming to work is an exercise in mutual benefit.

How to ruin millennials

I read Brazen Careerist because if nothing else, Penelope Trunk makes startup failure sound like good. Her witty brand of sex, career advice and life experience makes it an interesting read, even if you find yourself confused half the time about what her point is.

For months, I’ve noticed a trend that started to make me really uncomfortable. More and more young women who post on that site, seem to model themselves after her. They’re early-to-mid twenty-somethings who seem to think blogging about their sex lives, job horrors and general apathy is going to get them “noticed” and somehow, they’ll become more marketable as a result.

What she’s encouraging them to do is career suicide.

Now, let’s be clear. The folks blogging this stuff and putting themselves out there are grown adults and can do whatever they want. It’s their lives and no one puts a gun to their head and encourages them to blog on Brazen Careerist. At best, the site has been a great repository for Generation Y’s motivated denizens to congregate and talk about how they’re going to fix the world the boomers have screwed up. (sorry, I had to.)

But when you start to think about it, you realize that Brazen Careerist isn’t just a place to get somewhat strange career advice from someone who has virtually nothing in common with the people on her site, it’s a “startup.” And said startup is aggregating the content of young souls, the majority of whom haven’t found themselves yet and asking them to talk with authority.

It’s a recipe for disaster.

I relate well to being empowered to write with authority at a young age, because I did it in my late teens and early 20s. Pre-social networks and everything. The validation is intoxicating and you feel like “finally, someone gets me!” Only to step away from it after a few years and figure out that what you were writing might not actually be what you think. Or you live some, experience a few things and start to shift your beliefs.

If you’ve already created this persona for yourself, all sorts of unauthorized people will have unfettered access into this world you’ve created for them. There is no “off” button and unlike Penelope Trunk, these millennials aren’t getting paid 10k a speech to give a glimpse into their own generation.

The criticism of millennials is that they have no work ethic, that they don’t understand the value of hard work and want to rush to the front of the line without paying their dues.

A lot of that is true, but it’s borne out of watching parents laid off of jobs after pouring decades of work into a firm, only to be told that they are no longer needed. It’s because they’ve been allowed to borrow tens of thousands of dollars for an education that everyone told them they needed, only to discover that either 1) they need more or 2) it wasn’t nearly as useful as the pricetag said it would be.

The bottom line of today’s work world, is the rules haven’t really changed that much. Yet.

Despite all of the hoopla to the contrary, boomers aren’t going anywhere in the workplace. They’re staying longer and later, blocking entry to the jobs that those underneath them are pining for. The work environment is still based on a lot of the same rules that were applied decades ago.

So I don’t care how many social networks get created, it’s not going to be okay anytime soon to bash your employer publicly.

Nor will it ever be in vogue to tout your experience and energy on one hand, only to reverse all of the goodwill and positive vibes you get by writing something in the voice of someone else, because you admire them.

Penelope is just relaying stories that work for her. Sure, she gives advice. But with any advice, your mileage will vary. Taking anything anyone says and using it the holy grail foundation for what you’re going to do is just bad news.

I’m not just picking on Penelope Trunk, because I’ve been sending her articles to friends for months now. But I just see too many young people following what seems to be a trend that so many millennials think they need to follow someone else’s blueprint to success. It goes for ‘stars’ out there that I admire whether it’s Chris Brogan, Gary Vaynerchuk, Paul Graham and Seth Godin, too.

Sure, they’re all smart people who have a lot of eyeballs focused on them. They say stuff that other people listen to and implement. So while we can learn from them (Lord knows I have) we should all — especially millennials — take a step back and try to forge our own path based on our experiences.

Leading social media folks are just bodhisattvas (or televangelists?), trying to help you reach some sort of Web 2.0 enlightenment. They’re not telling you to do it their way because you’d fail if you did.

Somewhere along the way, thought leadership turned into cult followings. Trying to be someone else just isn’t going to get you far, so do the best can you with what you’ve got. There is no fast way to success, no magical potion or secret formula.

Mentoring students in the .edu workplace

Whether it’s an intern who’s with you for a summer or a student worker in an academic office, mentoring can be a real challenge for many people who come into contact with students.

The penchant — especially for younger professionals — to treat students as “buddies” or as junior employees is an easy one and as such, it can blur the lines of professional decorum very quickly. Once the lines are crossed, it can be a very difficult thing to turn back the clock on.

I don’t really have any hard and fast rules for mentoring students, in part because my mentoring posture is just an extension of my personality. In other words, treat people like the adults they are. In every way you can.

I don’t believe in coddling students or making them feel like they are babies, because they’re not. I’m direct, but also funny most of the time…and try to make them understand that I’m genuinely interested in their growth and development. It’s a function of being a student and having experienced a lot of what they are, but being older when it happened.

But here are a few things I’ve come to use as a model for how I deal with students in the workplace:

1. Be honest. It just seems like a common sense thing, but telling a student they’ll be doing one thing, only to have them doing something different seems disingenuous to me. Explaining up front the range and scope of the work they’ll be doing, ensures there are no surprises later.

2. They’re adults. Treat them that way. Just because they’re students, doesn’t mean I treat them like bottom feeders. Even if the tasks they perform can sometimes feel that way, it’s important for me to communicate that their assistance is appreciated, without making it seems as if they’re indispensable. After all, none of us are.

3. Communicate. It’s such a key, because it can be uncomfortable working in a professional office (especially if you’re the only student) and feel as if you’re being shut out of things or don’t know what’s going on. Now I realize they can’t know everything, nor should they, but sharing information and letting them know what you can, goes a long towards building trust and also lends itself to…

4. Teaching Moments. Teachable moments are plentiful in the academic workplace. But all too often, we can get wrapped up in our own activities or want to let stuff go and be the “cool boss” and just brush things off as “not a big deal.” We do young workers a disservice by failing to show them how their actions as students can translate into poor work habits once they graduate. With the economy becoming more competitive each day, whatever advantages we can extend to students before they leave the door can be ones that stay with them for life. So I make it a point to share moments that can be tied to something bigger, because they eventually start to see how things are interrelated, without always knowing the details.

5. Boundaries. I’ve been blessed with great bosses almost my entire career. But one thing I came to figure out pretty early on, was that I had to learn how to separate the relationship. When it’s all boiled down, both of you have a job to do and your responsibility is to make their life a bit easier. If they’re worth their salt, they’ll do the same for you. I feel this is the same way for students. You can be cool, respectful and fun, without letting them think you’re buddies. Because this is the easiest trap for students to fall into and so, it’s not about asserting control as much as it’s about getting the job done.

Just because I like to laugh while getting it done, doesn’t obscure the fact that it ultimately needs to get done, the right way or else we’ll have problems. I articulate all of this a lot more coherently in ebook manifesto I wrote a few months ago on ChangeThis called Workplace 2.0: Motivating and Managing Millennials.

What are your ideas on student mentoring?

Reading, Writing and Big Ideas is a blog by Ron Bronson about higher education, web strategy and life in the millennial workplace. Subscribe to the blog via RSS or email.

Twitter is just like high school

You’ve got your bullies. Divas. A whole “in” crowd of people who talk to each other, but don’t actually listen to what’s going on around them. Sorry folks, but once around the high school block is enough for me.

I think that’s my biggest criticism of the Twitter phenomenon. It’s like this elaborate Ponzi scheme built around the fraudulent notion that if you say something “interesting” that people will “tweet” back and thus, you add followers who will project your sage wisdom and insight to the world.  But I call B.S.

Twitter’s value to the individual correlates directly to:

1. Power of your brand: If your brand is already hot, people are already talking about you anyway. So Twitter gives you plenty of opportunities to extend that power into an entirely new venue. So it makes sense that its biggest evangelists are people who already have huge followings.

2. Your intrinsic ability to self-promote: If you can handle being annoying and don’t mind spamming people with lots of information, even if it only applies to a small few, you’ll do great at Twitter. It’s truly an exercise of sifting through lots of junk mail to find the one coupon that applies to your situation. It’s lame, but it works for a lot of people.

3. Time wasting is proxy for work: Twitterphiles say that it’s not time wasting. That it’s just part of the job. But it’s not. You legitimately take time from what you’re doing — your real job, driving, a conversation with friends — to post something on Twitter. But since it takes seconds and it’s done on the fly, it’s far easier to say that it’s not that big a deal. It’s not until you get ensnared in hour long conversations about things with people there. Also, it’s not all work. There’s  a lot of play and superfluous commentary going on.

The more derisive comments I’ve heard about Twitter usually revolve around Gen Y’s narcissism and belief that people truly care about what they’re doing all of the time. But those folks just don’t get it.

One of the things that’s great about Twitter is the feedback you can get from people at the drop of a hat. I enjoy being able to put an idea out there and test it from legions of folks of whom, you don’t know personally in many cases, but have relationships with professionally — or in my case, through this blog and little else.

But it’s not all that earthshattering, really. It’s just a different medium.

I can get the same sort of feedback and input (well, better actually) from one of the online communities I’ve been a member of for almost 10 years now. Twitter offers people who don’t have that sort of history on the web, the opportunity to cultivate conversations with people they meet in other places online.

While I’m sure there are folks who contend that organic, natural relationships and conversations generate from Twitter. Yet, I’m convinced that the time that you’d need to invest to get them would be better spent on other things. Open networking on Twitter is just a disasterous waste of time, generates noise that distracts you from the people you actually want to hear from and devalues it as a potential service.

We’re doing this social networking thing all wrong. Until we get away from what I call the “trading card friends phenomenon,” we’ll all be spinning in our office chairs and say we’re moving forward and making progress. While there are lots of different ways to make connections, the correlation between “more eyeballs” and “valuable ones” is a distinction that more social networking sites need to make.

Closed networks are influential. The real money will be delivery of a product that allows influencers to disseminate valuable information to people who want it and can cut through the noise. We’re developing too many products that don’t serve part and parcel of the general population any use at all.

Sure, it’s nice for me to have a Facebook account where my mish-mash of high school, college, military, work and camp and online friends can assemble and be easier for me to manage. But the layers and complexities are friendships could be loosely called “The Long Tail of Friendship

Just having them together for a narrow, specific purpose would get it value. When you start adding applications, games and spammers to the mix, you’re just asking for trouble.

You’d think these people would’ve learned from America Online. AOL in the mid 1990s was successful because it was the biggest dog on the block. It was a content network with the most folks, offering the most services and where people would literally assemble because they didn’t want to lose their online relationships.

Those of us who used it for very specific purposes,valued it because our existing relationships on the network were more valuable than going on the web and trying to create the same infrastructure. (But maybe it’s just the projects I was involved in at the time that make me unique.)

But the trick is, we all paid for that right.

Twitter, Facebook and their ilk are all going to die and the future will be, someone who figures out how to create something that can be monetized because it actually has value.

Novel concept, I know.

The newbie’s guide to putting yourself out there online

I was asked by a friend a few months ago, an old work colleague, about online profiles and whether there are “hard and fast” rules on mixing your profiles. I had to think about it a bit, but here’s a list of thoughts that might be helpful, especially for young people who are just leaving college and starting the world of work or folks who are moving up the ranks professionally and starting to wonder when to cut ties with their “old selves.”

1. Don’t mix business with pleasure.
I don’t care how many bloggers tell you that it’s perfectly fine to open up your social networking profiles to the masses and to aggregate your blog all around the high heavens. The general rule of thumb is, if you’re just starting out (and heck, even if you’re not), it’s probably best to keep a low profile. If you’re an entry level gal with big dreams, maybe you’ve read “The Devil Wears Prada” and think you’re going to write an awesome expose on how your corporate cubicle overload.

If you’re going to write a professional blog and you’re just starting out, I encourage folks to do everything they can not to tie it back to their “real life” persona, at least to start out.

You’ll find that the freedom to speak as yourself is an important idea. So is making sure that you’re being respectful of others. There is a balancing act in being able to speak freely, while also maintaining professional decorum. So being “unknown” isn’t really a chance to just character assassinate people willy nilly.

2. Profiles are like trading cards….
Social networking profiles are the soup de jour. We probably all have stories of an “awkward friending” or two in our day on Facebook or some other site. Who you attempt to bring into your network isn’t really a big deal, it’s more an issue of what they’re able to see. Is it really necessary for all of your friends to see every wall post? Or every photo? Facebook has security features that will let you group your ‘friends’ in different classes.

It also takes a bit of work to organize them all if you’ve got different layers of friends from different phases of life, but it can save the potential embarrassment of a bored coworker plastering drunken photos of you from your Facebook at the office, on their way out the door. (Or does that stuff only happen on TV?)

3. You won’t get rich by simply “being” online.

No matter how unique your mother says you are, you’re probably not going to become a Z-list celebrity because of your blog. You are not Gary Vaynerchuk or Penelope Trunk. These people have found success in the real world and have simply translated it to the web. No one poured water on them and turned them into internet celebrities. So don’t go out of your way to use your blog as a gateway to super-stardom. The people who end up internet famous are more often than not, people who screwed something up and had the misfortune of having it captured on YouTube. So call your agent and tell her that you’ve got a bit more work to do.

4. Meld your worlds with caution
Pigeonholing yourself can be an easy attraction. But you have to speak on what you know. If you’re an entry level PR hack, don’t create a blog purporting to know it all. You also can’t expect that all of your interests will be interesting once you’ve generated a following for your blog. If you have a personal blog, feel free to talk about whatever you want. But if you’re writing a cooking blog, don’t be upset if many of your followers stop reading the blog after you go on month-long tangents about how your girlfriend dumped you. Respect your audience, create a conversation with them and they’ll be your most fierce supporters.

Ultimately, the newbie seeking to establish themselves online need to know that it’s all about trial and error. The only way to learn the ropes is by doing it.

Good luck!

Your personal best & 10 songs (1.16.09)

Something I was once told by an experienced Master Sergeant when I was in the Air Force that stuck with me was when I’d been through a particular course and while my performance was “the best” in the group, I’d most certainly come the farthest of almost any of them. I was recognized for my performance, was put in charge of our group towards the end of the training. I must’ve looked quite surprised and he came over to me and said (paraphrasing), “You don’t think you’ve done a good job here? Do you realize where you started from to get to this point? Everyone here is judged on their own merits, has their own goals and things to get through to succeed. You’ve succeed, so don’t look surprised. But don’t stop either.”

Ok, I paraphrased that so heavily that you can attribute that quote to me now. But the point is, your personal best is where you set the bar. Only you can know why you’re motivated how you are and the only person who can truly know what’s inside your heart is you.

1. Don’t believe the hype, especially your own.
2. Never believe you’re invincible, because you’re not.
3. Check yourself at the door and understand others.
4. Challenge yourself.
5. Don’t expect to fail, PREPARE for the success you seek.

Here’s some music for the folks who come here for that on Fridays.


A failure to commnicate: Web strategists and the big picture

I’ve been thinking for a while now, that there has to be a way to better integrate the work of web strategists with the institution at large.

I feel like taking web people and sticking them in the little corner called “IT” and calling it quits or say, creating new departments for them that are the equivalent of interdisciplinary studies (PR + IT and a dash of marketing or admission or alumni = Chaos Soup!) are just ways to apply old thinking to a new problem.

The way I see it, the job of the web strategist in (shudders) Web 2.0 (/shudders) is to serve as really a marketer, who uses technology. Folks who know how to hack code, create awesome Flash video, make expensive and poorly developed proprietary content management systems workable should be in IT someplace. Trying to blur the lines and create these quasi-techno folks who end up strewn about campus in admission, athletics, public relations or alumni just creates confusion and makes it very difficult to know where the chips lie, whose responsibility lies where and even if you’re the most organized college or university and all of the folks get along; you’re still going to run into problems with cohesiveness and uniformity in your messaging.

My point?

The role of the web strategist is different. The web strategist is a marketer, first. Someone who understands the institution up and down, inside and out. This person can’t just be the web monkey posting things to the web that they don’t understand. Or someone who people just call to complain about spelling mistakes on their pages or to ask how to update their ancient content that HAS TO GET OUT RIGHT NOW OR ELSE THE WORLD WILL END. (emphasis theirs…)

Web people folks need to be engaged in the process. Some folks are really good at this already and have been given the freedom to create roles within their institutions that are bold and innovative. But still too many are unable to reach the wider audiences of the institution (students, parents, faculty in some cases) with bigger ideas that will push the boundaries of our thinking, because we’re still too sheltered in our approach.

I often say that today’s youth are different than the first generation of web users who were in their teens and who adopted the web as a hobby. Millennials bathe in digital media as a way of life. They’ve been texting in school to their friends and as such, have been born as digital consumers rather than producers. This changes the rules of the game a bit for people trying to reach them and I think the shift happened so fast, many colleges and universities are still scrambling to keep up with the times.

The problem is, most don’t understand what’s actually happening, they’re just using a few anecdotes to craft a vision of what’s really going on at the ground level. Many folks are still doing the same things. Now we just have a few cooler videos to show and can attempt to “create relationships” through digital tools that weren’t available 15 years ago.

But it’s not enough.

Despite the mad rush towards the corporatism that has overtaken higher education (out goes admission, in goes enrollment management and so forth…) we don’t apply entrepreneurial solutions to very common problems. There is a failure to respond rapidly, because we have dinosaurs and humans living in the same ecosystem and to the two simply cannot co-exist.