shutterstock_173666327I’ve been coaching a Gen X leader at a phenomenally successful tech company. They’ve gone from zero to hero – (billions of dollars of global revenue in 2014 from a standing start less then 10 years earlier) – and that’s nothing unusual. What is unusual, though, is the fact that – with a UK office based in London – every single manager is a Generation Y employee – most of them in their mid-to-late 20s and early 30s. They are a dynamic, committed, and clever lot – some street-smarts and some book-smarts – but all of them heavily into technology. There’s just one tiny snag; they are starting to leave – in droves. How is that possible? They’re working for a profitable, ever-growing, fast-paced, exciting company. They are part of a wonderful success story. And they are getting fed up and voting with their feet – often with 18 to 24 months of joining.

The answer is cultural. And it’s not even the culture of the tech organisation that is sending them away. It’s the culture clash of the generations.

Who are Gen Y?

Generation Y generally refers to people born between circa 1980 and 1990, although the group is sometimes expanded to include all those who entered the world between 1977 and 2000. The Gen Y group is also referred to as Millennials – although in Europe, Gen Y is the usual term. The large discrepancy in dates is because – when it comes to defining a generation – it’s never the case that a switch is thrown and all new babies born after a certain date will suddenly change their characteristics. Here in the UK, we usually think of Gen Y employees as those who are aged between 22 and 35 years old.

Who are Gen X?

Generation X is the generation born after the post – World War II baby boom with birth dates ranging from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. These guys are in their 40s and they feature a lot of the characteristics at work of their parents; they are very hard-working, very ambitious and prepared to do what it takes to succeed. Work-life balance is not something they have been known to excel at.

The disconnect between the generations is far worse when Gen Y meets the Baby Boomers. Baby boomers are people born during the baby boom years immediately after World War II – between the years 1946 and 1964. These guys had very little and were brought up to work even harder. Their simple belief was that hard work leads to promotion – and it’s going to be a long haul.

So what’s the problem? It’s all about expectation. In the tech company where I’ve been working, the Gen X CEO is only 44 – but – to the Gen Y-ers whom he is trying to groom for his succession plan, he might as well be 97. Here is how they see him:

“I’ve been with the company for 6 months and I know I’m doing well – but I haven’t been promoted. Why don’t they promote me? Can’t they see I’m worth it?”

“I told the CEO that he should have a new process for managing client onboarding and he laughed in my face! He’s stuck in the past.”

“I know I’m doing a good job, but every time I ask my manager for feedback, she tells me to wait until we have our one-to-one meeting – but that is 4 weeks away – why won’t she talk to me now?”

At my last coaching session with the CEO, I painted the picture of the challenges he is facing and why his workforce is deserting him for pastures new:

Example challenge #1: Generation Y often wants to gain regular progress at work. Bruce Tulgan of Rainmakerthinking – which studies of the lives of young people – is quoted as saying: ‘They’re like Generation X on steroids. They walk in with high expectations for themselves, their employer, their boss. If you thought you saw a clash when Generation X came into the work-place, that was the fake punch. The haymaker is coming now’. My coachee can’t see that Gen Y are confident and used to gaining plaudits and opportunities. Baby Boomers and Gen X have created offspring that have the highest levels of self-esteem and of their potential. And when promotion does not appear, these employees are the least loyal to their current companies and they will swiftly look for – and find – new opportunities.

Example challenge #2: Generation Y wants constant feedback – and will not wait for the annual appraisal or the twice-yearly performance review to get it. Jordan Kaplan, an associate managerial science professor at Long Island University-Brooklyn in New York says: ‘Generation Y is much less likely to respond to the traditional command-and-control type of management still popular in much of today’s workforce. They’ve grown up questioning their parents, and now they’re questioning their employers. They don’t know how to shut up, which is great, but that’s aggravating to the 50-year-old manager who says, “Do it and do it now”‘. Gen Y come into the workplace with new ideas, new demands and a huge drive to change the same-old, same-old way of doing things. Ignore this at your peril. And they want to tell everyone what they think – whether that’s the client, their co-workers or their boss.

Example challenge #3: There can be management conflict between the generations. Repeated surveys have shown that both younger and older generations experience some tension, either because a younger person is managing older colleagues, or because both younger and older colleagues are dismissive of the others’ experience and skills. Generation Y are dismissive of the lack of technological savvy in their older colleagues, whilst Gen X is unhappy with the lack of social skills and management sensitivity when dealing with external clients or internal teams or peers. My coachee talked about one Gen Y manager who happily told him that he manages all his team members with ‘banter’ – teasing them, mocking them and playing pranks on them – before going out with a prospect to a strip joint and doing shots. Well that’s one way to buy a client and manage your team!

The challenge is here to stay and it’s too simplistic to say that Gen Y workers have nothing to offer. They may lack the social airs and graces that are required of the corporate structures post IPO or once the company has gone from start-up to a brand name. But these workers are our future; and they are here to shake things up and to embrace change. We need to find a way to help them be successful in the world of work, without upsetting clients or line managers. We need to encourage each generation to work in harmony with the next, and maximise the potential of both. It is clear that age brings synergy and wisdom. And the 40-something Gen X-ers have client experience, strategic thinking and the ability to understand client and market positioning and to respond in a value-based manner. The Gen Y-ers have the new ideas; ideas about process, system, operation, distribution, and yes, even technology. New ideas are the life blood of organisational longevity. It’s up to the old timers to support the newbies and make it work.

And the way that we do that is to lead. We have to lead the debate and start talking about this at the top of the business. We have to integrate new Gen Y leaders into the more structured and process-driven frameworks of a corporate organisation – encouraging them to see such aspects as a useful starting-point. And we have to accept that Gen Y will ultimately change the goal-posts; so we must include them in future-focused planning to transform over time into the new corporate identity where Gen Y, Millennials and even Gen Z feel they can live, work, create, innovate and change the world. After all, that’s what we wanted to do when we were their age!