3 ways to tap millennial talent to engineer a next-generation workforce

Communication differences and workplace challenges have increased as more millennial generation talent integrate in traditional workplaces that have top-down organizational charts and unwritten rules about how things are done. Try to think more like a 3D networking grid with leaders in the middle, rather than a hierarchical chart, according to Seth Mattison, founder and chief movement officer for FutureSight Labs, and opening speaker at the 2015 A3 Business Forum.


Seth Mattison, founder and chief movement officer for FutureSight Labs, was opening speaker at the 2015 A3 Business Forum. He provided tips on working more effectively with millennials, looking suspiciously like one himself. Courtesy: Control Engineering,Three strategies can help millennial generation talent be more productive as the next generation of workers clash with the prior generation's unwritten rules. "The Shift: Engineering next generation enterprises for a next generation workforce," provided a forum for discussion and advice, in a session led by Seth Mattison, founder and chief movement officer for FutureSight Labs, during the opening keynote at the A3 Business Forum.

Talent that grew up knowing the Internet will be half the workforce by 2020, Mattison said. Many of these millennial generation workers may find integrating into and communicating within traditional workplaces a challenge because of top-down organizational structures and unwritten rules about how things are done.

Effectively working with millennials may require thinking more like a 3D networking grid with leaders in the middle, Mattison explained, rather than a hierarchical organizational chart with leaders at the top. The comments and advice were part of the A3 Business Forum, Jan. 21-23, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., with sessions from constituent A3 organizations: Robotic Industries Association (RIA), Motion Control Association (MCA), and AIA (Advancing Vision and Imaging). A3 stands for Association for Advancing Automation. 

Generational wisdom

Mattison, who has spoken for Disney, Dow, MasterCard, Microsoft, and State Farm, among others, suggested he's gathered multi-generational wisdom from growing up on a farm, working with his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. He listened to their perspectives for many mind-numbing days riding in a tractor, before there was screen-based entertainment for youth. From that, he learned that each generation has its unique story, and sharing generational stories and perspectives can help make sense of shifts in organizations and markets.

The world of work has evolved, or tried to, in the last 15-20 years, Mattison said. It used to be that top-down, command and control thinking ruled. When someone in power said to jump, we said, "How high?"

Showing an image of a traditional organizational chart, he asked the group what that meant to them. It represents a formal and informal collection of rules, values, and expectations; a view of the world; and permeates our language.

"We should communicate that with the 'higher ups.'"

"We need to push that information down into the organization."

"She worked her way up quickly."

Human resources and coworkers, in training sessions, and by watching, teach such written and unwritten rules. 

Unwritten rules; tribal knowledge

"How many of you have ever thought, 'Oh, if I only knew then, when I started that first job, what I know now?'" he asked.

In a brief exercise, the audience discussed and then shared "lessons learned" in their first jobs. Examples included:

  • Those are the executive elevators; do not use them.
  • There official and unofficial org charts; know which to follow, when, and where.
  • It doesn't matter how important the task; what matters is who is asking.
  • Problems belong to the team, not individuals.
  • Don't offer your views to customers when with a senior staffer unless asked to do so.
  • Safety first. The details are up to you, and you better not get hurt.
  • There's the official way, and everything else is the wrong way.
  • Don't go over your boss's head. Ever. 

Coffee with the boss: 2 forces at work

If your organization thinks more like a traditional organizational chart than a 3D network with leadership in the center, there are ways to make structures more appealing for integrating more millennial generation workers, according to Seth Mattison, founSomeone in their 50s in the back of the room asked me, "Why do young people just walk into the boss's office with coffee and ask to hang out? I don't even do that." Why? Millennial workers don't see a hierarchy, but a network. Two forces are at work:

1. Parenting shifted in the 1980s, and family organizational charts were flattened. Children who dealt with parents whose style was, "My way or the highway, without debate or discussion," were becoming parents. They wanted to be more collaborative and communicative about issues, and may have even made some decisions together.

2. Youth have grown accustomed to teaching adults how to do things. Those who normally would have been authority figures became peers. Why? Many millennials have been chief technology officers in their houses since they were 12 years old. They have unlocked the tools of the Internet, and social media empowers them.

"Most of you here are digital immigrants and remember the age before the Internet. It was a horrible place. Let's never go back there." 

Different ways of thinking

With the new generation in the workplace, there's a new level of empowerment. It's not that millennials are smarter, but they've grown up with tools to bring their ideas forward into the world, and it's a networking versus hierarchy mind-set, Mattison said.

What is the organizational infrastructure going to mean for your organization? What are the unwritten rules, communication policy, procedure, and etiquette? It's a different mind-set today. Some of you might prefer to email. Others might prefer to call. Others might prefer to text. Some 20-somethings don't know how to pick up the phone.

Where work happens is another issue. Prior to email, most people generally didn't work at home, and work and home personas never met. Now when the alarm goes off in the morning, the next thing most people do is to check email, and the last thing they do before their head hits the pillow at night is to check email.

If someone isn't at the desk at 9:15 a.m., the perception may be that the person is not working. 

3 strategies for working with millennials

"I know what some of you are thinking, that 3D intertwined network is total freaking chaos, but if you're planning on working longer than three years, you cannot stay relevant working with the mind-set that goes with traditional organizational chart thinking," Mattison said.

How can companies take advantage of the newer networking mind-set?

Leaders need to take advantage of leading from the center of the network rather than from the top of the organizational chart. Here are three strategies to working more effectively with the millennial generation.

1. Shine a light on the unwritten rules of hierarchy in your work structures. If a rule, policy, or workflow is kept, then everyone should know why, and people in the organization should be held accountable to those expectations. Homework:

  • Choose one unwritten rule in your culture that you would like to let go of.
  • What's a new unwritten rule that you would like to instill? (For example, when people are not at their desks, it doesn't mean that they're not working.)

2. Evangelize those expectations, holding people accountable. Live and breathe those expectations.

3. Invite everyone to have a seat at the table. We have to find ways to leverage people in our organization and unlock and tap the talent.

Three wishes for 2015

Mattison shared his three wishes for the assembled engineering-oriented audience for 2015:

1. Have courage to be honest with ourselves. The world is scary, and changes come like a fire hose of disruptions. There are many new frontiers. Stay bold, brave, and courageous.

2. Maintain curiosity. Learn and grow. Look at how things are changing, as if through a child's eyes and from many different angles.

3. Be committed to education, such as attending conferences, and put into practice what is learned. Do the TAN (take action now) plan by choosing two or three things from the conference to implement in the next 100 days. Share those with a colleague and check in with each other at the end of April to see what has changed.

- Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, mhoske@cfemedia.com.




Key concepts

  • Millennial generation workers think differently about organization structures.
  • Unwritten rules can hinder the next generation workforce and should be brought to light.
  • Changing structures to unlock talent at all levels is a good thing.

Consider this

What changes in personal and workplace culture can you implement in light of this next generation workforce, millennial knowledge?

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