After reading author Geoffrey James’ article on things millennials need to do to win at work, I was inspired, but I wondered what learning leaders and millennials’ direct managers can do to help them succeed. I reached out to James, author of “Business Without The Bullsh*t,” and interviewed him to find out the answers. With a book title like that, I knew he’d give me the honest truth. Below are edited excerpts of our interview.
What are some of the challenges Gen Y faces at work?
James: The challenges over which they have no control are one, an economy where as much work as possible is being pushed into sweatshops overseas and two, a prior generation — Baby Boomers — who have absolutely no intention of either retiring or foregoing benefits like social security and Medicare that were more easily paid for in the past. The challenges over which they have control are how to remain optimistic and look for opportunities even though they’re playing a deck that’s basically stacked against them.
How can they be overcome? How can something like mentoring help?
James: Probably the best strategy — which I do cover in my book — is to seek “career security,” which consists of simultaneously increasing the value of your work to your current employer while actively maintaining three other opportunities in various stages of development, along with a written plan for continuing to develop those opportunities and a written “emergency” plan which you activate if your job disappears. As soon as possible, young workers need to get themselves into a defensive financial posture where they can tolerate at least six months of being unemployed. That’s an incredible challenge when you’ve run up a huge student loan debt, but that still needs to be a priority … before paying off that debt — your emergency fund needs to cover minimum payments on the debt.
Mentoring is a way that established workers and executive fulfill a deep-seated need to teach what they’ve learned. The trick to finding a mentor is realizing that the benefit of mentoring goes as much to the mentor as to the person being mentored. Finding a mentor is relatively easier than you think; it’s mostly a matter of noticing who enjoys teaching you and who does so grudgingly. It’s a mistake to think about having a single mentor; you should have many for different areas of your work life. Being mentored is only part of the picture; having role models — whom you don’t know personally but admire — is probably just as important.
How can culture be changed, if that’s the problem?
James: Once a company has grown to about 25 people, a corporate culture cannot be changed except by acquisition or disaster. In the case of acquisition, the larger company’s culture will eventually destroy and consume the smaller, much as the body’s white blood cells. Prime example: When AOL “bought” Time Warner. Within five years, Time Warner — which was eight times larger — had completely consumed and “Time-Warner-ized” what was left of AOL. Corporate cultures sometimes change as the result of financial disaster when that disaster forces a wholesale change of management and a complete re-ordering of existing power structures and corporate fiefdoms. This does not always work, though, and many companies have maintained corporate cultures that eventually put them entirely out of business.
Should culture be changed, or should Gen Y just learn to adapt?
James: As you can probably gather, I believe the question of whether or not culture “should” be changed is moot, so adapting is the only alternative. That being said, all corporate cultures are not similar especially inside firms that have been around for differing periods of time. Eventually, however, just as every child eventually ends up looking and acting like their parents, every company ends up looking pretty much like the companies from which they sprang. Microsoft, for example, now has a culture almost exactly like that of the minicomputer manufacturers of the 1980s. Facebook will get there in about 10-15 years. Google is on the brink.