Managing the “Me” Generation

It may not mean what you think.

By Jack Zenger, CEO, and Joseph Folkman, President, Zenger Folkman

For the first time, we have four generations in the workplace together. As a whole—even as leadership coaches—we’ve made some assumptions about the newest generation of young workers who are entering the fold. We’ve come to think of the youngest workers as the “Me” generation: selfish, more concerned than older workers about the flexibility the job offers or the ability for the job to support their social life and their personal goals. We think of them as entitled, and not as willing to yield to the needs of the organization as their parents and grandparents were.

Are these assumptions true? Clearly, in many cases they have been.

But for the Gen Yers in leadership roles, the data we’ve compiled in our research at Zenger Folkman may yield some surprises.

Our recent reports show us, for example:

  •  Gen Y leaders are every bit as focused on driving for results as their older counterparts.
  • Likewise, they’re equally focused on meeting the needs of the organization.
  • They exhibit cooperation.
  • They welcome collaboration.
  • They are enthusiastic.
  • They are inspiring.
  • They are willing to innovate and to improve on ideas.
  •  They are generally good at resolving conflict.
  • They have a desire to market programs, and also a desire and a willingness to market themselves, as opposed to feeling like their work should speak for itself.

The biggest surprise of all? They welcome feedback. In fact, they actively seek it. Not only do they seek feedback from their superiors, they seek it from their co-workers and from their employees as well.

Our Gen Y leaders score better than their older counterparts (ranking 60 percent or higher) on all of these fronts.

Stymied by Stereotypes

What does all of this mean? Perhaps we have been unwittingly subjected to stereotypes that don’t really apply. We are not questioning the good intentions nor the sincerity of those who have espoused these ideas. But their ideas simply do not stand up to an analysis of the hard data we have on the subject.

We confess to not being totally surprised. The speeches we’ve heard at conferences about changing our leadership and management practices to adapt to generational differences, along with the things we’ve been reading in periodicals about the younger generation of workers haven’t squared at all with our personal experience. We’ve thought that perhaps we’ve been exceptionally lucky to have found an unusual group. But the traits we’ve observed—hard working, conscientious and driven toward getting results, loyal—are all consistent with the data we’ve seen.

Perhaps the reality of the current economy and world situation has strongly and temporarily influenced the Gen Y workers we’re encountering now. They know life is challenging. They have mortgages. In many cases, they have young families. They want to be successful, and they’re willing to work hard.

Andrew and Breanne

For example, consider the example of our intern, Andrew. We gave him a fairly vague assignment to study international business trends. No clear instructions—just a request and an objective we asked him to try to achieve.

He dug through data. He didn’t need a lot of supervision. He asked a lot of questions, and he wasn’t embarrassed. What’s this? How does this work? He took initiative—grabbed the opportunities he saw and ran with them.

Then we ran a conference at Sundance, UT, that required us to shuttle clients back and forth from the airport at times as early as 5 a.m. He did the job willingly. He was not only present, but he was engaging—starting conversations, showing a natural curiosity. He was innately—not deliberately—working his network. At the end of the conference, many of our clients remarked how much they had enjoyed him, and several actually wanted to offer him jobs.

Or consider Breanne, a young marketing talent. Just out of college, she was fearless about making phone calls, contacting people at every level, and making things happen. She related well with people. She showed a surprising level of professional maturity and initiative. She was able to think on her feet.

She realized we needed a speaker’s bureau. So she took it upon herself to find a professional association—ask a lot of questions—and off she went. What did we need to get started? Videos. An audience. She made everything happen. She didn’t wait for instructions, and she wasn’t afraid to lead out. As a matter of fact, we found her presence so compelling, you now can see this young marketing person, Breanne Okeron, in the video intro of our Zenger Folkman interview with Steve Jobs.

Are these experiences unusual? According to our current data, they are not.

Did these Gen Y leaders learn these traits in the process of assuming their roles? Or did they already have these traits, and perhaps these are the reasons they have risen so quickly? On these fronts, quite honestly, we don’t yet know.

But what we do know, from the results of our own experience and empirical research, is that the characteristics Gen Y leaders bring to the table are far different than the stereotypes many consultants and popular speakers would have you believe. In fact, there are many positive traits that their older Gen X managers and leaders could learn and benefit from.

How often do you see a Gen X manager not only welcome feedback, but actively seek it out from his or her subordinates and peers?

Knowing these things, perhaps we can manage our prospective Gen Y leaders a little differently than we had thought. We have to be both thoughtful and deliberate about working together and taking advantage of their skills and experience. We think they will pleasantly surprise us; and all the data we have suggests they will be more satisfied and productive when we raise the bar. Our organizations will benefit strongly from Gen Y's particular strengths.

In conclusion, it appears we can all relax. Our fears and stereotypes about this younger generation are largely unfounded, and while they have a lot to learn from us, we also have much to learn from them. Maybe Roger Allen summarized it best when he noted, “You may wonder what is going to happen to the younger generation. I’ll tell you what’s going to happen: They are going to grow up and start worrying about the younger generation.”

Jack Zenger is CEO and co-founder, and Joseph Folkman is president and co-founder of leadership development firm Zenger Folkman, which employs evidence-based methods that improve organizations and the people within them. For more information, visit


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