The Transitional Parent (Part 2 – Gen Y Retention, Excellence & Growth)

December 12, 2008

Part 1 of “The Transitional Parent” focused on how Gen Y’s seem to be delaying “adulthood,” defined as a time when they take full responsibility for their lives.  I included stories providing examples of young adults who are unwilling/unable to make their own decisions, parents who insert themselves (or Gen Y’s who allowed their parents to insert themselves) into the academic and professional lives of their children in ways that are excessive, Gen Y’s having a hard time going from zero-to-one on their own, how Gen Y’s have rarely faced disappointment or having to accept the consequences of their actions, and those who view their early to mid 20’s as an extension of their adolescence rather than the start of their adulthood. 

Given these observations, how should managers approach their new-to-market employees in ways that are effective, realistic and reasonable?

Parent Role and Manager Role — Differences and similarities are a matter of degree and content

Among other things, the role of parents is to:

  • keep their children safe and healthy
  • provide an environment in which children can learn and grow
  • teach children right from wrong and how to get along in the world
  • set boundaries
  • teach good work habits
  • provide lots of guidance, feedback and encouragement
  • encourage excellence
  • help children learn to make good decisions
  • move children towards successful independence 
  • provide enrichment opportunities
  • and to love unconditionally

Parenting is a high touch, high maintenance activity.  Different parents approach the role in varying ways based on their own personalities, histories and parenting philosophy.  Parenting level of involvement runs along a continuum that changes through the course of a child and a parent’s life.

 Among other things, the role of a manager is to:

  • create a productive team that gets the job done
  • create a culture that encourages and facilitates success
  • set a clear direction
  • provide resources needed to do the job
  • coach employees to master their current role
  • prepare employees to demonstrate good judgment, independent decision making, and initiative to take on additional responsibility
  • provide feedback, support, cover and encouragement

Whether the manager/employee relationship is high touch or low touch depends upon the manager’s personality and approach; the employee’s personality, role and need; and the nature of any given project or task.  Some managers interact with their staff daily, others rarely.  This too runs along a continuum that will change through the course of an employee, a manager and a project’s life.  There is a realistic expectation that employees at the start of their career will require more management attention than those who are more established in their career.


Gen Y and their Manager – A question of expectations

If you examine the parent role and the manager role, they’re fairly similar.  Both roles require structure, explanations, guidance, opportunity creation etc.  The differentiation is often where they land on the involvement continuum and the scope of influence.  However, Gen Y employees seem to be entering the workforce with a different level of expectation regarding what support their managers will provide.  These changes often catch their managers by surprise and leave them unsure of how to approach this new profile of employees.  Three of the main differences that may not have entered into the manager/employee relationship for generations past as much as they do now are enrichment, independence and unconditional love.

Many of the Gen Y I’ve worked with, whether consciously or subconsciously seem to view their first job as another enrichment opportunity.  (The concept of enrichment will be discussed further in a future blog.) This will certainly impact the seriousness with which they approach work, and how flexible and loyal they’ll be.  Gen Y’s are accustomed to the adults in their life arranging opportunities purely for the child’s personal growth.  Gen Y’s may assume that their managers will approach task assignments and coaching in that same individual-focused way, rather than from a “what’s needed for the business” perspective.”  This can lead to inconsistent expectations which can often lead to manager’s disappointment with an employee’s performance, commitment and attitude, and an employee’s disappointment with an organization’s opportunities and support.

Speaking of support, for generations past, young twenty-year-olds entered the workforce itching for independence.  They’d been overseen by their parents and then by their teachers and they wanted to be allowed to fly – to see what they could do without such an overbearing support system.  Gen Y’s do not seem to be demonstrating that desire.  For their parents, raising independent children was not a high priority, so this generation doesn’t have much experience with it.  They like their support system, and again, whether consciously or subconscious, will except it to be there in the workplace like it was at home.  So managers may be surprised by the extent to which their new employees are dependent upon them for guidance, feedback, and decision support.  When they enter the workforce, this generation will expect frameworks to help them know where to start and feedback at each step in their process.  Without it, they will have a hard time getting started and meeting the company’s expectations and their own.  They’ll be less loyal because they just won’t feel the love.

Speaking of “the love” one of the biggest differences between a parent and a manager is that a parent will love a child unconditionally, even if that child fails a test, can’t hit a baseball, or talks back to grandma.  A manager will not (indefinitely) support an employee who can’t deliver, no matter how much that manager likes that employee.  A parent cares, first and foremost, about each child.  A manager cares, first and foremost, about the business.   While Gen Y’s don’t expect their managers to love them like their parents do (that would be creepy) they do expect their managers to care about them as people, not just as employees and their ability to serve the business.  Without that personal connection, it is very easy to choose to move on at the first hint of job dissatisfaction or the image of greener pastures.

First Manager = The Transitional Parent – A Place on the Continuum

And so, we’re back to the concept of a continuum and viewing the role of the first manager more as that of a transitional parent.  Instead of new employees showing up day one ready to serve the organization and be independent, they show up with the unspoken belief that this is another enrichment activity and that a manager’s primary role is to serve and support their needs.  If parents are not promoting strong independence, decision making and an ability to get from zero to one on their own, that role will fall to the first manager.  If parents are hovering and providing constant feedback, the first manager will become responsible for breaking that habit and adding the confidence to reduce that dependence.  If parents have not guided their children through facing disappointment and coming back stronger and more determined, that will fall to the first manager who simply cannot promote everyone.  If parents have not provided guidance on what information is appropriate to share and how to approach “no dress code” in a way that will position an employee for success, it becomes the first manager’s responsibility to do that.

Many managers will find themselves surprised at the scope of this role.  They will be surprised that while their new-to-market employees enter the workforce with many amazing and impressive skills, there will be some maturity gaps that these managers will need to fill to ensure their new-to-market employees’ success.  None of this is impossible, but it sure is time consuming.  And so a first manager may need to move closer to high involvement than may have been necessary in the past.  The role of the transitional parent is much higher maintenance than the role of a more traditional manager.


So, for managers of new-to-market employees, don’t be surprised by these traits in your Gen Y employees. Recognize that to manage this generation effectively, to retain them long enough for them to become productive and confident contributors to your organization, you have some work to do that you may not have anticipated.  This will require explaining how their projects fit in with the overall mission of the organization and explaining how working on those projects will provide skills that your employees will leverage later in their career.  Recognize that they may want constant feedback, but that it doesn’t serve them well if you provide it.  It will be your job to wean them from it and to develop confidence in their ability to make independent decisions.  You will need to provide ways for them to hone their instincts regarding information sharing, dress code, constant telecommuting at the expense of feeling a part of the culture etc.  And finally, you will need to (and should) care about them as people.  You can’t phone this in.  You actually have to care.  Managers who don’t will likely be ineffective with Gen Y’s.  Their employees will leave quickly and will not be shy about broadcasting why.  Their Gen Y’s who stay will become even higher maintenance because they will continually be insecure.  Yet, managers who are inclined to have a higher level of caring for their employees as people, not just as employees, and who are willing to do coaching and individualizing will fare better with this generation, and likely employees of all generations.


Gen Y’s you need to recognize some of this as well.  Realize that you’ve been hired to do a job and that you have the talent to do it incredibly well.  Your job is not an optional activity.  You are being compensated to provide value to your organization.  Yes, you should grow in the process.  But your growth may be as much what your organization needs as what you need. (Hopefully both you and your organization have chosen each other well.) Your manager is there to guide you, but you are primarily responsible for your own success.  No job is perfect and no job will meet all your needs and expectations, especially day one.  Be patient with your job, your manager, and yourself.  Ask for what you need, but don’t expect to get it in exactly the form you anticipate.  In many cases a question will be answered with a question, and you will be asked to draw your own conclusions.  A manager who provides this level of coaching rather than just telling you what to do is a gift.  Appreciate it, rather than getting frustrated by it.  Think about what a dream employee would be to your manager and become that employee.  Those are the employees who get the best projects, the fast track promotions, and the latitude to follow their own interests combined with the organization’s needs.  Those are the employees who are mentored by their organization’s leaders, not just managed by them.  If that’s who you want to be, be that person.


Parents, when your kid breaks a glass plate carrying it to the kitchen sink, let your child carry the plate again tomorrow.  OK, you have no idea what I’m talking about.  When he was 5, I switched my son Carl from plastic to glass plates.  The first night, he dropped his plate and it shattered across the kitchen floor.  I didn’t much care about the plate, but could have lived without the hour of clean-up painstakingly assuring that the floor was cleared on every shard so not to injure my son or one of our cats.  After that I started carrying the plates.  I didn’t think much about it or make a conscious decision each time, I just did it.  It was easier that way.  He’s 7 now, and I’m finally ready to let him carry his plate again.  When I suggested it, he said,”I can’t, I’m afraid I’ll drop it.”  And I realized that every time I carried his plate, I was telling him, “you can’t do this.”

So parents, do less for your kids.  At a certain point in their life your level of involvment needs to move to the lower side of the continuum.  Encourage them to make their own decisions.  Yes, they’ll make mistakes, but they’ll learn more from those than they will from your doing it for them.  Don’t go to informational college or grad school interviews and don’t call the school or a prospective employeer to get feedback or status.  You can coach your child regarding questions to ask and what to say, but that room and that phone call belongs to them.  Employers and university administrators do not view your participation favorably and it reflects badly on your children.  Let your children struggle when they don’t know where to start a project.  You’ll know when they’re ready to do more on their own.  Let them squirm and whine.  They’ll be prouder of their final accomplishment.  Let them fail or try out for a team they likely won’t make.  Support them through the process of deciding what’s really important to them and figuring out what they need to do to get there.  Teach them to be great employees and the value of hard work.  Talk to them about your early career choices (good and bad) and why their early twenties is a great time to spread their professional wings – a time for flapping rather than soaring. 

By the way, this is as much a “note to self” as it is intended for readers.

Oh, and the “unconditional love” part, that’s forever.

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