I was recently asked to work on a sales-development project with a well-known online legal-services company. Over 20 months, I hired, managed, and trained 20 inside-sales people who had an average age of 28.
I am a 52-year-old baby boomer with all of the baggage associated with that generation. From day one, I knew I needed to shed my Woodstock-colored glasses to make this project a success.
Although we certainly had our challenges, our team repeatedly nailed our individual and team revenue goals, and we did it while having a blast together. We also had minimal internal conflict and very little “drama” of any kind.
Although I won’t repeat the litany of negative stereotypes that are often assigned to the millennial generation of workers here, I will say that this young team often exhibited these traits—but ultimately, it didn’t matter.
We were able to successfully navigate our generational differences by integrating three crucial “swipe rights” into our team. When I first heard this term, I needed a definition, so if you’re not sure what “swipe right” means, click here before you finish this post.
Swipe Right #1: Establish a culture of learning.
This is the single most important takeaway from my learning experience. As I mapped out our strategy early on in the project, I realized that if we were able to establish a culture of learning, we had a fighting chance of reaching our targets.
For the most part, these team members were not college-educated and many of them lacked business acumen, facts that were apparent in their written and spoken communications with executives and other upper-level management.
However, each one of them had something special, something at which they excelled. I knew that if we could leverage and share these individual strengths, each team member would discover a sense of confidence that may have eluded them in the past.
I set out to establish domain-expertise groups that enabled each member to teach fellow team members and new hires their respective areas of expertise.
These areas included CRM software basics, call-center system troubleshooting, telephone/email selling techniques, social-media selling, software-tool beta testing, and even party planning. Heck yeah!
Before long, I was fielding requests from the team for more formal technical and sales training. On top of that, I noticed that team interactions were now filled with a dialogue of sharing and learning.
Side conversations no longer centered only on the latest app or what was happening on Game of Thrones. Instead, the team was now talking about improving processes and helping each other gain knowledge.
A culture of learning begets self-respect, mutual respect, and humility. Yes, I’m associating millennials with humility. I witnessed it in action too many times to count.
Swipe Right #2: Share Key Performance Indicators with millennials to create ownership and unity.
Besides sales revenue, I concentrated on five additional Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) throughout this project.
There was no existing company protocol that required me to share my KPIs with my team. However, one day in a weekly sales meeting, I happened to mention that I needed to finish entering my KPIs, as a month had just ended.
Immediately, the questions started rolling in: What was a KPI? What did it mean to me and my higher-ups? Sensing an opportunity to gain buy-in from the team, I took them through an informal primer on Key Performance Indicators.
Eventually, the questions my team was asking went beyond my understanding. Their ability to take in and fully understand the connection between their efforts and the KPIs I was tracking was startling. Our meeting went 90 minutes longer than usual that day, but it proved to be key to the success of our project. From that time forward, we always had a KPI review during the week.
Team unity and harmony are clearly key motivators for this age group, as well as being drivers of success with KPIs. My generation gives lip service to teamwork, but we somehow take solace in the fact that if the team fails, our individual efforts can still allow us to shine. I saw very little of this thinking with my team. They triumphed and failed together.
Their teamwork was driven by knowing exactly which numbers the executive team was monitoring. They felt that if one team member fell short, the whole team had failed. I was really touched by seeing them operate with that mindset, in part because it’s something that I struggle with myself. This is when it became blindingly obvious to me that these individuals wanted to work with me, not for me. They were teaching me about teamwork.
Not only that, but their entrepreneurial take on problem-solving and their need for real-time updates drove our KPI performance up naturally. As I became consumed by the day-to-day tasks of managing a sales team, they often reminded me of the big picture. They displayed levels of innovation and dedication that I remember witnessing only rarely among members of my own generation.
Wait, who was the teacher and who the student? The lines began to blur. See #1 above.
Swipe Right #3: Personalize development and goal setting.
You might say that any good manager personalizes team-member development and goal setting, but it is especially key with a generation whose life experience is increasingly a customized and personalized affair. Accordingly, their attention tends to wane when they realize they’re looking at something meant for the masses.
How could I leverage my team members’ need for personalization? On day 1, I started conducting regular one-on-ones with the individual members of my team. I got to know them: their likes/dislikes, families, fears, and dreams.
I found that professional goals were more readily met and surpassed if we had a personal goal in the mix. Because I couldn’t do weekly one-on-ones with each team member, I used an automated survey tool to poll their progress on their development goals as well as alert me to any issues or concerns.
I was surprised at their ability to link technical or “tangible” goals to our KPIs and “intangible” goals to cultural values, such as learning or mutual respect. They did this naturally because of Swipe Right #1 and #2 above. The strategy was coming together.
I finished the project with this organization, and although I have now moved on to my next project, I stay in touch with almost every member of that original team.
My millennial friends should take solace in the fact that although there are many experts currently focusing on how best to manage millennials, it won’t be long before those same millennials are looking for tips on how to manage the boomer and gen-X generations that preceded them. I’ll guess I’ll watch from my rocking chair.