Staffing Management

The Last Word: Argue This: Millennial Managers

By Rick Bell

Dec. 21, 2014

I was a lousy boss my first time out.

Wait, I take that back. If you asked the people in my department, they’d probably tell you I was a great boss. I pretty much ran it like Otter ran Delta Tau Chi in the movie “Animal House.”

Minimal rules; lots of beer; a constant party. I wouldn’t be surprised if my former employer still has me listed on double-secret probation, too.

One of my initial managerial vulnerabilities was thinking I could remain everybody’s buddy. Freshly promoted from the reporter ranks, in my late 20s — essentially the equivalent of this era’s millennial — I was stoked about being the boss. Then reality set in: hiring, firing, making unpopular decisions that months before I’d criticized along with my chums. It’s a harsh reality when you realize that it can get a little lonely at the top. I had several friends my age who were running a store or managing a department telling me as much. But it was something I had to learn for myself.

No one gave much thought — or seemed to anyway — about entrusting young people with the responsibility of leading a department. Today, for whatever reason, the millennial-as-manager draws a collective shudder: Those self-entitled, needy, instant-gratification-loving, collaboration-is-king slackers? Not in my company. Let them wait their turn. No. Way. In. Hell.

Well, I was there — agewise at least. And maybe I am living proof that 20-somethings have no business managing anything other than a dumpy, gin-soaked fraternity. But millennials are stepping into managerial roles just like I did. And it’s probably happening at a faster clip than ever before, given the staggering number of baby boomers who are heading off into their golden years. About 10,000 boomers turn 65 every day, according to Pew Research, which will continue through 2030. But like me, my father before me and my grandfather before him — and perhaps, just like you did, too — someone has to fill those shoes beating a path to retirement’s door.

This month, Workforce introduces an ongoing series of stories that we are calling “The Argument.” Rather than lay out an issue in essay form and fold in some thoughts and perspective, our writers are tackling a topic.

Our first topic on the table: “Get Used to It; Millennial Leaders Are Coming to a Workplace Near You.” Michael Watkins, a bestselling author and noted expert on leadership transitions,and co-author PJ Neal explain the reality of coming to grips with today’s up-and-coming leaders.

“The Argument” is a new addition to our storytelling arsenal. Call it people management with passion; sparring with strategy; a thought piece with teeth. Employers and their charges are deluged every day with a dizzying array of dilemmas, and while we may not be able to solve all of them with a 2,000-word story, we want to sort through these big-picture people management issues with focus, clarity and a critical eye.

You’ve probably noticed millennials taking lead roles in business; perhaps even at your workplace. In fact, Watkins and Neal point out that nearly half of millennials hold some type of leadership position in their organizations, trumping both Gen Xers and baby boomers in that generational arc. The authors also note that while most are starting as entry-level managers — crawl before you walk — there are the Mark Zuckerbergs who are not only leading departments, but also founding and running global corporations that will shape our world for decades to come.

That entrepreneurial attitude is enticing to millennials, and it’s inspiring them to achieve great things as leaders. And, do it quickly, the authors add.

If that’s the case, maybe traditional mentoring programs will be blown up, too. Collaborator could be a millennials’ surname, but it’s on their terms that they’re learning the managerial ropes.

Not necessarily a bad thing. If learning from your managers is the traditional way to climb the professional ladder, mine pretty much toppled backward on top of me with each new boss. In succession, my first five supervisors were: an alcoholic, a chain-smoking alcoholic, a meth head who sexually harassed female employees, and a coke fiend.

The fifth had a license-plate holder that said “moderation is for monks” but was wound so tightly you never knew which boss you were getting that day — the freewheeler or the monk. There was another who occasionally tossed office equipment against the wall, but he wasn’t a direct boss.

No doubt my early superiors shaped how I managed when I was in my late 20s. I’m betting that today’s millennials are distilling their experiences with supervisors as they enter management.

We’re looking to start the argument. You may agree, and then again, you may not. We’re OK with that. If you want to debate the topic, that’s fine. Let the conversation begin.

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director. For comments or questions email editors@workforce.com.

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