Demonstrating value to boomer bosses: A memo to millennials

March 21, 2011

You’re a recent college graduate. You’ve revised your résumé, improved your interview techniques and perfected your portfolio. Or perhaps you’ve already landed your dream job or internship. So what’s your next move?

I have a tweet for you: Understand and deliver on your co-workers’ expectations. Use the PR skills you’ve learned and approach your employers just as you would any key public — determine what their self-interests are. If you’re going to succeed in your new role, then well-honed skills will be a major factor, but they won’t be the only one. You’ll also need to understand what the generations already in the workplace — in particular my generation, the baby boomers — value and expect from you.

You may be thinking, “Why do I have to do all the accommodating? Shouldn’t my more experienced co-workers be trying to understand my values and expectations?” The short answer is yes. Senior PR practitioners must understand and accommodate your unique characteristics and work style. I am both a PR educator and a former corporate PR executive and hiring manager, and I can guarantee you that at this moment, all over America, people like me are devouring articles and research studies and attending training workshops to learn how to work effectively with you — the generation known as Millennials.

Your generation has many great talents and skills to offer, and you will transform the PR profession in ways we can’t even imagine — especially with how easily you embrace new technologies. But before you can apply those great talents and make your mark, you must be hired, retained and promoted by the generations ahead of you. For now, your future depends on them. Here are six tips to help you succeed in their world.

Have patience and respect experience

My generation grew up believing that getting ahead takes a long and dedicated effort — and I emphasize the word long. It took most of us many years to reach the positions we have now, and we similarly expect others to pay their dues in the workplace. I’ve explained to junior colleagues many times that most management positions aren’t acquired overnight (or even within a couple of years). They will come only after a long period of hard and relatively unglamorous day-to-day work. Millennials who can deal with this reality humbly, cheerfully and conscientiously will win the respect and support of their baby boomer supervisors.

Challenge with caution

If you disagree with someone in the workplace, challenge him or her cautiously — and privately. Strong public criticism, so often taken for granted in today’s online world, can be viewed as a personal attack if it’s directed at a colleague, particularly a boomer. If you feel it’s necessary to criticize a peer or a manager, make sure it is appropriate to offer the criticism (e.g., it relates directly to your working relationship with them) and that it’s given privately and in person. Never bad-mouth (or write negatively about) a boss or co-worker. It will likely get back to that person and will probably damage your relationship.

Leave your parents at home

Boomers place high value on self-reliance, independence and personal accountability; indeed, many boomers were raised with the “do it yourself” philosophy.

For example, when I was a student applying for scholarships, my parents’ main role was to simply say, “Good luck, honey! Let us know how it goes!” These days, however, Mom or Dad might very well fax or e-mail the application in for you. The fact that today’s parents take such an active interest in their children’s success is a tremendous asset to Millennials.

But when it comes to workplace or even academic interactions, be careful about the degree to which you involve your folks. Having parents accompany you to interviews, be visibly involved in submitting your work or applications, or call to complain on your behalf is not appropriate. In college, it’s a possible violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act  for your professors to even discuss your academic performance with your parents. And in the workplace, involving your parents might imply that you can’t fight your own battles or handle complicated tasks yourself — a message you definitely don’t want to send to employers.

Learn to live with ambiguity

Structure, advance notice, details or even a plan will not always exist in your work world. You need to make decisions and think and act clearly in the absence of guidance or certainty. We boomers have learned to get along pretty well in a climate of uncertainty — we are, after all, the generation that crouched beneath our elementary school desks for civil defense drills.

Your generation, however, sometimes finds ambiguity to be challenging. I urge you to quickly become comfortable with figuring out how to tackle a problem and implement solutions yourself rather than asking someone to tell you exactly how to do it.

A former student recently told me about reporting for his first day at an internship expecting to be closely supervised, only to find that his immediate boss wasn’t there. Not knowing what to do, and faced with the choice of doing nothing or being proactive, he went to others in the office to see if they needed help. Afterward he said, “My outreach to others in the department helped me gain their trust, and it broadened my opportunities in the office for the remainder of my internship.”

Eliminate the “E-word”

One description sometimes applied to your generation is “entitled.” This means that someone believes exceptions or allowances should be made for him or that he can obtain something without paying the same price as other people. I’m not implying that everyone in your generation actually feels entitled. But be aware that Millennials sometimes have that reputation, so colleagues and employers may be watching for confirming evidence.

My advice? Go overboard in your efforts to not seem entitled. Be humble and grateful. Don’t ask for deadline extensions or other special considerations. Be confident, but don’t oversell your accomplishments. Have realistic expectations: In job interviews, don’t focus on salary or on how quickly you’ll get promoted — those conversations come after you’ve turned in a rock-solid performance. Come to the interview prepared to ask good questions — and make the questions about your employer, not just about yourself.

Find a mentor

One of the best ways to navigate an unfamiliar workplace culture — and to learn to get along with the generations that inhabit it — is to find a good mentor. In the business world, people have two kinds of power: positional power, or the kind of power that you get from having a high-ranking job, and referential power, the kind that comes from having influence and commanding respect.

When you start your job, look around and find someone with referential power. Such people aren’t hard to spot, because co-workers tend to flock to them. Ask those people to be your mentors. Ask for their advice in navigating the workplace, and ask them to observe your work style and tell you how to improve.

Well, that’s the end of the tip list — you’re on your way. We boomers have some high expectations of you, and you’ll be inheriting some  significant challenges when you get here. But we’re looking forward to learning from you, and we’re confident our profession will be in good hands in the years to come.

Susan Balcom Walton, M.A., APR

Susan Balcom Walton, M.A., APR, is an associate professor of public relations at Brigham Young University. She has also held communications management positions at various Fortune 500 companies.

Email: susan_walton at byu.edu


Jennifer Heinly says:

Susan, great article. I will be sharing on all my social media sites. It was also great meeting you PRSA this year. Thanks again.

March 28, 2011

Ken Li says:

Agree with Jennifer that this is an excellent article. Glad I haven't seen any parents join their children during interviews!

April 14, 2011

Gen Y says:

Great article, just want to point out couple things from a Gen Y's perspective. Obviously, boomers have spent many years (often 20+) to get to their positions now, but unfortunately the world has seen a drastic change and it doesn't make sense for a Gen Y to work 10+ years just to get a promotion (that's if you get one). Putting in long, hard working hours has worked for the boomers because the world was in a relatively stable condition economically. Boomers were taught that if you work hard, save money, graduate from college, you'll find a decent job with a good salary to live on. Again, not in 2012. Many boomers fail to see this or flat out reject this (for those boomers that can relate to the current job market, thank you, you are a cool boomer and will instantly hit it on with any Gen Y) About experience; Almost all of my co-workers were boomers and I can tell you, they do not like CHANGE. Most of MY colleagues are very traditional and will not give side to your opinion even though it might create a better product in the end. It boils down to authority, boomers have been working for so long and they simply won't give way because of their 'experience'. Experience is so important in the workplace, but so are 'ideas'. A successful workplace requires intelligent Gen Ys and open-minded boomers.

July 6, 2012

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