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Mind the Gap

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A 45-year-old like me with two young sons and parents in their 70’s is pretty screwed when it comes to effective communication. My kids run away from a ringing phone as if it were a shrieking demon. My parents adore the phone, but only in my wildest dreams would they think of responding to an email. For all I know, emails to them are forwarded to some Arctic wasteland.

This communication conundrum isn’t just at home. I work with two talented researchers, Anna and Mary Rose, both of whom are in their mid 20’s. Although we have a 10-minute morning meeting each day in which we vocalize spoken English, we communicate best via instant messaging. Silence reigns on their side of the office, except for maybe a muffled snort at a funny chat exchange. When I speak with them they adopt a slightly blank expression, possibly because they are unused to processing verbal communication on the fly. But message them and a perfectly thought out reply comes back in nanoseconds. Eventually a system evolved that works for everyone: When I am sick of instant messaging, I wander towards their side of the office and speak. If I am not looking directly at someone but just emoting, they don’t even pretend to pay attention. But when I look at one of them directly, they start taking notes. That way I’m reassured they are listening.

Anna and Mary Rose are part of the rapidly ascending generation of people born after 1980, commonly referred to as “Generation Next,” “Generation Y,” “Generation We,” or, as I refer to them in this column, the Millennials. Just as firms needed to adapt to prior generations coming of age in the workplace, once again employers find themselves assimilating a set of people with very different work priorities and ways of interacting with managers and peers. Firms that fail to make those changes will lose the benefit of getting the best contribution from a group of savvy people who are accustomed to rapid technological change. In the financial services world, that’s too big a loss to accept. In this article I’ll make some sweeping generalizations about a large group of people while understanding that every individual is different. I have indeed heard rumors there are two or three Millennials who can work late without breaking a sweat about missing their weekly beach volleyball game.

Though there is some argument about the years that divide the generations, baby boomers were born shortly after World War II; today they range in age from 58 to 66 years old. They grew up in a period of economic prosperity and dramatic social change. Gen Xers are between 42 and 57 years old. We have come of age in the era of MTV, the personal computer, and mindlessly “surfing the internet.” Millennials are known for being completely at ease in this digital era, coming of age in the midst of global economic crisis, and transcending cultural wars fought by and among previous generations.

Buttonwood Group

The career aspiration of a boomer is to die facedown behind an impressive bronze deskplate (with an equally impressive title, of course). A Millennial’s career aspiration might be to get out of the office as soon as possible before she suffocates from the smell of sweaty wool or collapses from acute boredom. OMG.

Boomers empathize and actualize. Millennials stream. Boomers may have 100–200 Facebook friends. Their son or daughter has 500–700 connections. Even the word “friend” or “contact” means something different. When I was first building out my LinkedIn network four years ago, people occasionally told me they wouldn’t connect with anyone they haven’t met in person, because that’s part of having a business connection. Millennials have no such reservation. Once a few electrons are exchanged, a relationship has begun. If there’s a reason for people to interact, that’s great. If not, hey, that’s fine too. Don’t expect a thank-you from a Millennial you rejected for a job. They’ve moved on. If there’s another opening, they will happily re-engage. Millennials aren’t acting rude or entitled: They just communicate in byte-sized packets.

They work hard because they want to keep their jobs but still get out of the office as soon as possible. An impressive title is nice, but time off is nicer. Because they have come of age at a time of economic uncertainty, they don’t wonder who moved their cheese. They are not as distraught as Xers when work is going poorly. They don’t identify as closely with their jobs.

Millennials don’t relish giving or getting orders—they prefer exchanging value. They want to know what they will get in exchange for what they give. This observation made us change the way Buttonwood communicates its search process to everyone, regardless of age. Now we explain the reasons for what we do and ask. “I need to know your compensation because we can both save time. If you are making much more than what my client will pay, then we can skip discussing this job.” Even if I mention I am a CFA® charterholder subjected to a code of ethics, they still need to know who gets what; otherwise they remain suspicious. I usually tell them. If I can’t tell them something, I explain why I can’t. Professionals of prior generations trust people they know. Millennials trust situations where they understand the incentives. They may make misjudgments from inexperience, but they will look to improve. You will earn trust when you give them verifiable facts. The second you are caught deceiving them, you’re out. They’ll share the experience with 700 of their closest friends too.

On that note, Millennials are much more group-oriented than previous generations. Look at the ads on TV—I mean, online (Millennials watch less network TV than previous generations). A compact car is not a status symbol; instead, it’s a tool you and your posse use to get from one exciting experience to the next. Older ads focused on how buying a certain product would attract people to you. When marketing to Millennials, advertisers presume a group is already in place.

We Generation Xers and boomers may find it challenging to alter our work expectations and communication style. But by recognizing the millennial generation’s mindset, we can get better results from happier employees. At least you will get far fewer puzzled expressions.

–Sam Levine, CFA, CMT
NYSSA member Sam Levine is the managing partner of the Buttonwood Group, an executive search firm specializing in investment and wealth management, and is on the board of the Market Technicians Association.

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