Case Study: Closing the Generation Gap

I had a recent client who had put in a lot of work to create a welcoming space for Millennial employees in his company. He had a manufacturing company, and he knew he’d need fresh young talent to keep his company thriving in the years ahead.

He was interested in what Millennials brought to the table and willing to try new strategies when presented with fresh ideas.

But he still lost one of his most promising Millennial employees, and I want to take a hard look at why.

The Impatient Millennial

The Boomer who owned the company – I’ll call him Mike – had created quite a lot of opportunities for employee advancement. Any employee who put in the hours of training time could get to the next level and be given authority over more interesting projects.

The promising Millennial employee, who I’ll call Rick, was excited about the more advanced opportunities available, and began pressuring Mike to let him move up the ladder.

Mike was thrilled to hear it. He wanted Rick to get to a more advanced level and to help his company grow. All you need to do, he told Rick, was go through the year-long training process, and I’d be happy to have you take on more advanced projects.

Rick was deeply disappointed.

A year seemed like too long for him to wait. He thought he had the talent to do the more advanced work right now, and he was frustrated at Mike for not giving him a chance.

Mike heard him out, but he wasn’t going to let an employee who hadn’t been trained take on difficult work. Not only might he lose money by making mistakes, he might endanger himself or other employees. Training was, Mike said, non-negotiable.

So Rick left the company to find someone who would let him do more difficult work immediately.

Mike was deeply disappointed. He knew a year was a completely reasonable amount of time to train for a large promotion, and he felt confident that he was protecting Rick’s safety as well as his company’s interests.

What else could he do?

When Both Sides Are Right – and Wrong

This case study is one of the most interesting ones I’ve encountered, because I think both the Boomer client and the Millennial employee could have been more flexible in their thinking and created a solid working relationship.

Rick, of course, had very high expectations for what he would be able to achieve right away. He definitely needed to be more realistic about the amount of time it takes to garner new skills and be given a more advanced level of responsibility.

Here’s an interesting idea, though: even though Mike’s one-year training was objectively reasonable, I still think there was room for a better bridge between generations.

Rick’s major objection – as with many Millennials – was being made to jump through a hoop simply because that’s the way things are done. You need X number of hours before you can do this new task – even if you’re already capable of doing that task.

That’s a reasonable objection. If you are already capable of the work, why should you have to wait?

Mike’s objection was entirely reasonable too: I need to know that you can do the work safely and skillfully first.

When both sides have reasonable complaints, what’s a compromise that might have kept this working relationship together?

Meeting in the Middle

My suggestion: Mike adapts his training session to focus on the results rather than the time spent in training. For example, if Rick had been able to perform each of the necessary new skills perfectly 10 times in a row without guidance, he would be considered trained in that skill.

With time no longer on the table, we’re looking at a different set of requirements: Rick can have his new position as soon as he demonstrates he has the necessary skills and safety awareness.

It might take him a year. That’s how long it takes most people, which is why Mike’s training requirement is a year – that’s the average amount of time it takes.

But with a talented employee like Rick, it might only take nine months. The harder Rick works, the sooner he’ll get his promotion. It’s no longer arbitrary: it’s entirely within his control.

Mike also has a benefit: a great new training system that gets him the talent he needs more quickly and efficiently when the employee has the skills to advance more rapidly.

Unfortunately, Mike stuck to his guns and so did Rick, and a good relationship was lost.

So do me a favor and take these two to heart the next time you have a stalemate between generations.

What do you really want? What do they really want? And how, do you think, could you both get it?

Paige Cornetet