How to Manage Millennials

The delicate art of building a culture that embraces employees of all ages, from Baby Boomers to Millennials.

With employees whose ages range from 18 to 55, managers at SceneTap have a pretty complicated job.

The 26-employee company, which sells an application that lets barhoppers scout out the ratio of male to female patrons at local nightspots, has younger employees in the IT department who are keyed in to social media and are always connected by smartphone. Thirtysomethings prefer email, instant messaging, and videoconferencing. Jump to sales and business development, and you will find people in their 50s, whose favored mode of communication is old-fashioned in-person visits or phone calls.

"We actually keep a spreadsheet so everyone has everyone's contact information, including a column with the preferred contact method," says SceneTap co-founder and CEO Cole Harper, who is 28.

Of course, managing multiple generations under one roof often involves challenges that extend far beyond the preferred mode of communication. Older employees naturally have more work experience, but they tend to be steeped in hierarchical mindsets, says Margie Blanchard, a co-founder of the Ken Blanchard Companies, a management consultancy in San Diego. By contrast, younger workers prefer level management structures that let them contribute and give them a voice--a fact that may not sit well with older workers who spent years working their way up the ladder. "We have moved from a hierarchical world to a side-by-side world," says Blanchard. "We need management and leadership that goes along with that."

To accommodate the varying work styles, some companies are migrating toward flatter management structures. Mark Vaughn, senior partner at Navint Partners, a New York City management consultancy, says such setups create situations in which leaders emerge on a project-by-project basis according to their particular strengths and experience. "The benefits are that people enjoy work more when it's structured this way," he says.

That's certainly the case for Andrew Cummins, SceneTap's director of business operations, who joined the company a year and a half ago. Cummins, 29, came from the rigid management confines of Boeing, where at least seven thick layers of management stood between the youngest workers and upper management.

"At Boeing, your role is very much defined," says Cummins. "You are put in a box with your own little portion of the world, and that is what you focus on. You are not really encouraged to go outside of your lane too much."

By contrast, SceneTap employees of all ages collaborate, move around, and try new roles. They are also asked to volunteer solutions and ideas directly to the company's top brass. "We are not organized around seniority," says Cummins. "We are based around who can get the job done most effectively."

Companies that have a hierarchical structure but want to grow flatter can use a hybrid approach. Acquity Group, a Chicago-based consultancy that focuses on e-commerce, branding, and marketing strategies, has about 500 consultants from ages 20 to 60. The company maintains a project-management structure that blends traditional top-down decision making with a more horizontal, collaborative work environment.

Acquity employees all work in a fluid structure, combining into groups for projects that typically last about three months. That means all the consultants are constantly working with a changing cast of characters. "We separate their role on each project versus the experience level they have within the organization," says Jim Newman, Acquity's executive vice president of operations.

That's not to say the system is perfect. The flexibility of the groups sometimes puts younger consultants at the head of teams, which can cause conflict with older workers, says Newman. The fluidity can also create confusion about career paths for employees who lead in one project but play lesser roles in others.

Acquity addresses the latter problem by trying to keep groups smaller than 10 people, which gives everyone a voice. Younger workers are then exposed to the experience of older workers and encouraged to learn from it.

The company also assigns a career manager to younger consultants to help them set and keep track of goals. In this way, management stays somewhat vertical and pushes employees to advance in the corporation. Both solutions mean these workers are less likely to get lost in the shuffle, get bored, or leave. Ultimately, Newman says, it all comes down to managing consistently, "which means communicating effectively and not being overly controlling or micromanaging." Advice that spans all generations.

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