We’ve been fooled: there’s no difference in hiring and managing people of different age groups, whether they’re 16 or 60.
I just spent a good part of a day observing a group interview for investment advisors conducted by one of the largest financial institutions in the country. There were 15 or so candidates in the room, ranging in age from their mid-20s to their early 50s. Surprising, all had the same perspective on life, similar long-range goals, and the same attitude towards work. Regardless of age, here’s what these people wanted:
- A chance to grow and develop and hone their skills.
- A clear career path that gave each person a chance to grow.
- A chance to get rewarded fairly for their efforts.
- A chance to make an impact.
- An opportunity to work with a team of top performers.
- A chance to work with a highly-regarded company.
Now one session like this shouldn’t dismiss all the reporting on the generational differences and how these need to be handled in the workplace. But it gets one to thinking: What if all of that reporting is downright wrong?
For example, three summers ago, we were involved with a project assisting the YMCA in hiring 100,000 camp counselors. Last year, we worked with 22-25-year-old managers at Red Bull, advising them on how to hire college kids to give-away free samples. Not surprisingly, the best candidates and supervisors had pretty much the same attitude and aspirations as the best salespeople, the best engineers, and the best aspiring executives we’ve worked with throughout the years. They all worked hard, they all went the extra mile, they all worked well with others, they all wanted to get ahead, and they all want to find an ideal work-life balance if the economics allows them this opportunity.
The “Management Grab” article in the August 21, 2006 edition of Business Week (there are about 15 great articles on competition in this issue) offers more insight. This quote describes why one 28-year-old woman selected one job from competing offers:
An economics and international trade major, Zhu could have picked from a number of Western-based outfits working in China. Instead, she chose General Electric Co. What won her over wasn’t the pay (other companies offered more). She picked the employer that would help her rise fast in one of the most competitive and potentially lucrative economies in the world.
I’ve been tracking the careers of top people for the past 35 years, and this comment seems very similar to every hot 28-year-old I ever met during that time. Some of these folks are now well into their 60s, and they’re not much different now then when they were 28.
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I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the generational-differences argument, and suspected that these were symptoms of the underlying changes in the economics of our day, not evolutionary changes. It just so happened that these symptoms appear as generational changes because this is where the attitude changes were first noticed. For example, suppose one of your parents got laid off in the late 1980s or early 1990s when you were in your early teens. Now on top of this add the reduction in benefits to current employees and retirees (note that DuPont announced August 28, 2006, that it was scaling back its pension plan.) This certainly had a negative affect on the company loyalty factor. Then add the impact the boom and bust of the dot-com era had on breaking the bond with employee and employer. And while you’re at it, why not add the huge effect the job boards and the Internet had on destabilizing the workforce. Now a top person ? of almost any age ? can find a new job within a few days if they decide that their current job isn’t worth the aggravation.
The high degree of company loyalty before 1990 might just have been a myth. It might have been due to the fact that the barriers to leaving a job were a lot higher then than they are today. Given all of this, I’m not so sure there is any difference between how you need to hire and retain a team of top performers, regardless of their age. While people today have more choices, especially the younger ones, my sense is that the baby boomers and their parents wanted to spend as much time with their families, but couldn’t for a variety of reasons, primarily related to the difficulty in finding other employment.
What the best people, regardless of age, are looking for is a place to be their best. From what I can tell, the places have changed ? not the people.
My big takeaway from all this is that there is absolutely no difference in how you attract and hire and manage top performers, regardless of their age. With this in mind, here’s some quick advice on how to hire and retain the best despite their generational labels.
- Define the real job. The best people want to know above all else what they’ll be doing, not the work-life balance. To get at this, define the job’s five or so big tasks and challenges. Then tie these to some major company initiative to give the job more importance and a longer-term perspective. For younger people, make the job a first step in a long-term career path.
- Write compelling advertising. Do not post your internal job descriptions if you want to hire top people. Great titles combined with exciting copy are required to attract the attention of the top performers. “Use your CPA to lead our international reporting efforts,” is a more powerful message than “Must have a CPA and 5 years’ minimum of SOX reporting.”
- Make sure these jobs can be found. I can’t wait to talk with Doug Berg at ERE’s 2006 Fall Expo. He tells me he has a new killer app that is guaranteed to drive the best people to your ads. In the interim, Google your jobs to see if they come to the top the list. If not, figure out how to get them there.
- Offer clearly defined career paths. Describe your company’s career opportunities as part of your website (see the video at http://www.tollbrothers.com/ for a good example). Then demonstrate it throughout the interviewing process. Better: have the hiring manager allow candidates to talk to people she or he has personally developed.
- Select people based more on their motivation to do the real work you want done, not their competency. First dig deep into a person’s three or four greatest accomplishments to find out where the person excelled or went the extra mile. Then, hire only people who have excelled at doing the real work you want done. This process is called job matching, and don’t be too surprised if people hired this way are also extremely competent. The key here: measure people on what they have done with their abilities, skills, and competencies, not the absolute level of these factors.
- Use performance profiles to clarify expectations during the orientation and on-boarding process. A performance profile is a detailed summary of the real job needs. It describes the challenges and key tasks on a priority basis, including time lines and metrics. For example, “Complete the upgrade to the SOX reporting using SAP in time for the fiscal-year reporting.” While most of these objectives were described in the online job description and discussed during the interviewing process, it’s important that the new employee and manager have a true understanding of actual job needs when the person starts. This gets everyone on the same page right away by tapping into the new employee’s motivating interests.
- Manage motivation by implementing a continuous rehiring process. People excel at doing work they find meaningful and important to them. Rather than assign it to generational differences, develop a work plan for each person on the team based on these motivating needs. For those who want to rise up the corporate ladder, keep on stretching them with bigger and more exciting projects. For others (like top salespeople or designers) who enjoy doing work they find stimulating, give them more of it. Use a performance profile to continuously rehire this way. This is how managers can maximize individual performance, increase job satisfaction, and reduce turnover.
Hiring and retaining top employees is now a more difficult challenge than it has ever been. I attribute this to the increased mobility of the workforce and the cavalier attitude companies have taken to their people. From what I’ve seen, the best people, regardless of their age, will work hard doing work that meets their motivating interests. As managers and employers, our job is to hire and manage people based on this simple criteria, not on some new definition of human nature.