Memo to Corporate America: 15 Ways to Motivate Generation Y

Generation Y's transition from college and grad school into the working world has been a bumpy one, to put it politely. "Extended adolescence" is real, "helicopter parents" are real, and organizations that hire twenty-somethings are finding that many of them don't walk and talk and act like adults. Making them fit for the professional world now falls on the shoulders of corporate America, where older and wiser managers are struggling to find the best ways to recruit, manage, "professionalize," groom, and retain Gen Y.

Whatever kind of business or organization you run, 70-million strong Generation Y is going to be at the heart of your success or failure, so you have no choice but to figure out what makes them tick. You won't be able to "hire around" the quirks of your next generation of employees and future leaders.

Here are the top fifteen points I communicate to employers grappling with the best ways to motivate and retain top Gen Y talent. Newsflash: it's not the salary. If it were, then throwing more money at Gen Y employees would do the trick.

(A note to twenty-somethings reading these tips: My regular readers know by now that I'm all about tough love, so I won't sugarcoat the biggest complaints about Gen Y in the professional world. Smart twenty-somethings will take these tips and use them to their advantage.)

1. Give them feedback.

This generation is obsessed with feedback. Half the time, they're not even hungry for new feedback; they just want to hear, over and over again, that the memo they wrote was well done, or that the presentation they gave was effective. What you think of as needy, they think of as a totally natural. And if they're not doing well on the job, they're handing you the perfect opportunity to tell them so, because they do respond well to constructive feedback and mentoring. That hunger for feedback should make your life as a manager easier, even if you find the neediness a bit much in the short run.

2. Give them teams.

In fact, they can't work without them. And if you don't let them work in teams, they'll find a way to build them anyway. They hate making decisions by themselves, and they don't like to do things without getting six or eight or twenty different opinions first. If you don't give them a group to run things by, they'll seek opinions from their cubicle mate, their girlfriend, and their dentist. That approach can lead to crummy results, stunt their leadership growth, and paralyze them when they discover that seeking eight different opinions results in eight conflicting suggestions. However, those are all management issues that can be handled if you're aware of them, and the upside is that you can use that preference for teamwork to pair up more senior employees with more junior ones -- pairings that everyone says they want, but that most employers don't make a priority.

3. Be prepared to negotiate.

Since these young adults could talk, they have been negotiating with a generation of parents who've had a real distaste for imposing rules ("Here's why it's a good idea to wear your dancing froggy raincoat today..."). They've spent their entire college careers negotiating grades and deadlines and feeling entitled to accommodations for anything under the sun… or having their parents do that for them. They do not respond to top-down orders because they have rarely encountered them before (unless they've done a stint in the military). Good luck trying to boss them around. This generation will question anything you ask them to do and expect to be persuaded why they should do what you're asking of them. And be prepared for mom and dad to jump in and try to negotiate on your employee's behalf.

4. Give them lots of small deadlines.

They can't get anything done without them, and then they'll wait until the last second to start. They treat their work assignments as if they were college term papers to be written the night before the due date. They have trouble with longer deadlines and project management, not least because they are used to their parents managing their lives for them. However, they are happy to learn time management and project management techniques if someone is willing to teach them.

5. Flatter them.

They think very highly of themselves. To older generations they seem arrogant and overconfident, and it's true that they have little respect for acquired wisdom, age, or a higher spot on the org chart. They will show up on their first day of work and think they can do your job better than you can. If you can see past your initial irritation, you might find them dropping some great ideas in your lap from day one. If you can harness that creativity and penchant for problem-solving, your business will benefit.

6. Don't assume technology savvy.

Despite what the media says, they are savvy about only certain kinds of technology. They can type ten-page memos on the go with their thumbs and will happily program your cell phone for you, but many of them have only the most primitive experience using corporate workhorse software like Microsoft Office. A surprising number are stumped by those magical little round things called bullets and plenty of other basic features corporate veterans take for granted. I have heard more than one twenty-something ooh and aah at a heavy-duty email program like Outlook because they've only ever used stripped down web-based services like Yahoo or Gmail.

The good news is that they're quick on the uptake and absolutely fearless about learning new technology. The bad news is that they are overconfident and won't ever confess ignorance about how to use a piece of software -- not because they're proud, but because it doesn't occur to them that they haven't already mastered it just by clicking a few buttons. Their overconfidence can sometimes wreak real havoc, so make sure to teach them the basics of productivity software even if they don't ask (and they won't - they'll just hit that delete button, wipe out the database of your most important sales leads, and then cheerfully lecture you about how to use technology more efficiently).

7. Teach them how they're making a difference.

After they get out of college, they go through various degrees of frustration as they realize they won't get paid well to do what is essentially volunteer work. Their entire childhoods and college applications have hammered into them that it's their volunteer work that makes them productive and decent human beings. Even when they come to realize that only private industry makes big paychecks possible, on a daily basis they struggle with that tension between wanting to make six figures right out of the gate and dedicating themselves to non-profit work, especially when every day they are bombarded with images of Angelina Jolie and Bono living the good life while trying to solve third-world poverty. Understand that any Gen Y employee in the for-profit sector is going to feel that pull towards the non-profit world, so you have to show them how they can do good while in private enterprise.

8. Give them flexibility.

They are willing to work hard and think nothing of being "findable" at all hours -- they are permanently online anyway. In exchange, they don't want bosses to abuse that findability, and they expect the flexibility to mold their work lives around their personal lives. Don't haul them in over the weekend or make them eat their twentieth conference-room dinner in a row unless there's good reason.

9. Teach them how to work face-to-face.

More experienced workers know that sometimes you need to sit in the same room to get something accomplished, but twenty-somethings would rather just send you a text message. You'll have to insist on a live meeting to get one. They also need to be taught how to interact professionally when meeting with clients and senior colleagues.

10. Teach them how to write.

Their writing -- especially professional writing -- is atrocious. They are willing to learn if you are willing to teach them. Colleges are not teaching them how to write, and it's now your job to do so.

11. Assume they're venting about you online.

They think nothing of complaining about work to the whole world on MySpace or their blogs and will happily use company email to complain about you, the company, the office refrigerator, and the idiot in the next cubicle. You may be surprised to discover what they are saying online, and you'll likely have to have a conversation about the propriety of venting in public and using company resources to do so.

12. Tell them what you'll do for them.

That attitude may drive you crazy, but they think of employment as their birthright, and whatever current job they have as a temporary stop until they move onto something better. Get ready for the jumpiest resumes you've ever seen. Unemployment isn't even considered a possibility -- they think that they can move into and out of jobs on a whim, and that there will always be opportunities available to them. They expect you to impress them.

13. Reward them intelligently.

Young investment bankers work their tails off, but they don't gripe nearly as much as, say, young lawyers do because their work environment is much more of a meritocracy than a lock-step reward system. The best performers should be rewarded more than mediocre ones… quite a bit more. And guess what: they can do math. If that "bonus" you're paying amounts to $20 an hour in exchange for canceled honeymoons or delayed surgery, they're going to feel insulted no matter how high you drive up their base salaries. And finally: unlike Gen Xers back in the day, they aren't wowed by cool views or foosball tables or free junk food or even casual dress codes (much as they need a lesson on dressing professionally). They are, however, dazzled by the latest and greatest technology that lets them do their jobs more efficiently and get the heck out of the office.

14. Feed their entrepreneurialism.

They consider themselves free agents, and however hard they work for you, they are plotting their escape to start their own ventures. The more you can indulge their entrepreneurial instincts on the job, the less likely they will be to defect.

15. Facilitate their lives outside of work.

Once they're out in the working world, they are hungry for the intellectual growth and extracurricular opportunities they took for granted in school. Facilitating their continuing education and hobbies goes a long way toward keeping them happy… and on the job.

Are there exceptions to these rules? Of course, and the biggest ones are the children of parents who have struggled to break into the middle class. A Gen Y employee who grew up watching her immigrant parents split six jobs to make ends meet isn't going to take any job for granted. And the employee who has been working since age 9 at his family's convenience store or gas station or restaurant isn't going to entertain such romantic and untested notions about the glamour of self-employment. If you think all Gen Y hiring candidates are coddled and overprotected, you haven't been looking hard enough.