Steven Cerri International

Engineer to Leader Article/e-Zine (#1) 

"Interpersonal communication, management, and leadership training, and

coaching for engineers, scientists, technologists, and technical managers"

 This article/e-Zine topic:  "A Conversation With Millennials"

I attended a weekend conference focusing on what Millennials (those 30 years old and under) want from their engineering careers. This event turned out to be a very interesting one and it provided some insights that were unexpected. I have chronicled them in this e-Zine.


What Is the Difference?

I often hear the following refrains: "There is no doubt that there is a difference between young people today compared to their older colleagues." "Young people seem to want everything right now!"  "They don't seem to want to pay their dues or wait their turn."  "Why, when I was their age I appreciated when I was given the opportunity to do something interesting."  "Young people don't seem to have any respect for the time it takes to gain experience." They are on their computers or phones texting in the middle of our staff meeting!!!" 


You have probably heard all this before, right? You may have even said some of these same words yourself or heard them said by others about you. The interesting point is that when I entered the engineering workforce, I remember the same words were said about me. I was impatient. I wanted more later. 


Whatever your generation,  a valid question is "Has anything changed or have the previous generations merely forgotten what it was like to be young and impatient?"  I think I got a glimpse into the answer to this question.  It seems that some things have changed and some have not and the question then is, what has changed and what has remained the same?


The AIAA / TMC Meeting

I attended a weekend meeting of the AIAA / TCM (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics / Technical Committee on Management) in the San Francisco Bay Area. The topic of the meeting, besides conducting general committee business, was to have a discussion and learning conversation with a group of Millennials.  The goal was too learn what Millennials want from their jobs.  The event was called "A Conversation with Millennials."


In order to facilitate the learning and discovery process, the presenter, a TCM member, structured a series of exercises. The first was to use a Pew Research Center questionnaire to determine the correlation between a person's age and their behaviors. The purpose of the questionnaire is to determine the correlation between a person's behaviors (in relation to technology and social media) and the behaviors of the general population of those of similar age.  (The questionnaire can be found online Here if you would like to answer the questionnaire and learn your score.)  


The Meeting Participants

The scores of the meeting participants were plotted against their ages, and while there was some scatter in the data, generally speaking, age correlated relatively well with generational behaviors. The older the respondent, a Baby Boomer for example, the more they exhibited the behaviors associated with the general Baby Boom population; (i.e., uses the phone and snail mail; prefers face-to-face communication; uses email sparingly; seldom sends text messages; does not have a Facebook page; and does not Tweet). On the other hand, the younger the respondents, the more they behaved as would be expected of younger people; (i.e., Tweeting; using Facebook and emails; sends text messages, and does not see a need to face-to-face communication). There were some outliers, of course, but general trends based on generations were definitely visible.


The second piece of the learning process included inviting eight or so young people (i.e., Millennials) to the meeting to discuss what they wanted from their engineering careers. They also completed the Pew questionnaire and their data also supported the general contention regarding age and behaviors. These young people were from various companies and at various stages in their engineering careers and all were between 25 and 32 years of age.


What Do Young People Want?

As the people of the Millennial generation spoke about their careers and their desires for their careers, they made it clear that they wanted careers that included the following:

  • Work that was meaningful
  • Work that was creative
  • Work that had an impact beyond their own immediate environment
  • Work that gave them a sense of autonomy and empowerment
  • Work that allowed them to grow

As I and other "non-millennials" listened to these young people express their desires, we all had the same response, "These young people all want what we wanted when we were their age and that many of us still want."  At this point in the day, I was not yet finding the distinctions that seemed to generate the differences in our behaviors... the differences in the behaviors of the Millennials and those who were not Millennials.


We then broke into groups with one Millennial in each group together with four or five people who were not Millennials. The non-millennials generally were from the Baby Boomer generation through Generation X. As the people in my group discussed and asked questions of the Millennial in our group, I was not getting any information that seemed to differentiate the behaviors displayed by the different generations. All of us seemed to want the same things from our work. It seemed that engineers, at least, generally wanted the same things from their careers regardless of age. Maslow's hierarchy of needs seemed to apply across generations.


And then It Happened

Finally, at one point near the end of our discussion time, the Millennial in our group said something that triggered a question from me, and I asked him, "If someone calls you on the phone and leaves you a voice message, how long do you think the person should expect to wait before you call them back?" The young person's response was immediate and a little surprising to me. His response was, "Why should they have to wait at all. Waiting for my response is wasted time for them. I should respond immediately." 


Something wasn't computing.  I personally anticipate that if someone leaves me a phone message, I might not get back right away unless they indicate that it's an emergency.  Especially if I am in a meeting, I'll respond when I have a break in my activity. Yet this young person was saying, "Why should anyone have to wait at all."


Is This the Difference That Makes the Difference?

I seemed to have found the thread I wanted to pull. So I asked my next question which was something like this, "So you don't think someone should wait at all for a response. In that case, if someone sends you a text message what thoughts go through your mind when you get that text message?"


His response was something like, "Well, if they text me it must be important. They must want an answer right away. There is no reason for them to wait for an answer. So I'll respond immediately to their question or text."


I next asked, "Well suppose you are in a meeting?" He said, "Well, if I'm not in the immediate discussion I can answer the text message and still hear what is going on so I will answer it right away with a text response while the meeting is proceeding."


I next asked, "So you actually feel compelled to answer that text message right away?" 


He said, "Absolutely. Why should the person wait?"


I then asked, "Well what about the fact that when you respond to that text message while you are in a meeting you might be upsetting the people in the meeting?"


He now smiled and simultaneously let me know that he didn't understand what all the fuss was about. He said, "Yeah, older people get upset in meetings when I text but I can text and hear what is going on in the meeting at the same time. I shouldn't let the other person wait and I don't see what the big deal is."


As we continued to talk to the Millennial in our group and as we discussed his sense of time and its impact on his behavior, he began to understand, from a different perspective, why his manager and colleagues were upset with his behavior.


What Is Going On?

As I listened to this young person of the Millennial generation explain his thought processes and actions it became clear that there were several forces at work simultaneously.


First, and probably most important, young people of the Millennial generation and later, have a different sense of "time". They probably live with a greater sense of "immediacy" than past generations. Technology has allowed them to actually communicate, (i.e., receive a request and respond / make a request and receive an answer) with a greater sense of immediacy than was ever available in the past. This leads the younger person to feel, "I can respond right now... so I should. Why wait?"


Second, young people have grown up with their face-to-face, in-person mode of communication merging with their electronic communication protocols (think text messages and Instant Messaging communication) such that in-person communication has essentially been replaced by electronic communication. Or at the very least, face-to-face communication is not all it used to be.


And Part Of It Is Our Fault

Third, we, their parents, must accept some responsibility for this sense of "immediacy" that afflicts the most recent generations. Here is what I mean. Remember, cell phones have not been around forever, and the smart phones that kids have now, have been around for even less time. 


Not so long ago, landlines were the only telephones available. Those phones sat on desks or tables or were attached to walls. If you were away from your office you did not know you had a phone message until you returned to listen to your answering machine.  You could generally only answer a phone message when you returned to your office... and you might be away from your office all day. So it became reasonable for the caller to expect that, if someone did not pick up their landline phone, they were away from their office and their phone, or busy, and they probably would not return to their office or be free to return the call for some time, perhaps even as late as the next day.  


Fast forward to today when every young kid is given a cell phone by their parents to keep in almost constant and immediate contact with their child. It is not uncommon for a parent to call a child to arrange a ride home from school or to convey an important message, and if the child does not pick up the phone, the parent often questions: "Where were you? I called and you didn't pick up. You have a cell phone. I expect you to pick up when I call", or, "I expect you to respond to my text message with an acknowledgement that you, at least, received my message."  


There it is! The first indoctrination that a "reach out" in any form requires an "immediate response", whatever the form.


The implied message we sent our children, with the help of ever more powerful technology, was then and still is: "When I (and by implication, anyone) calls, you had better answer that phone call (or text message) immediately."  We have been training our kids to behave just as they are now behaving and now we are complaining about it.


Be Careful What You Wish For

Those of you who have taken some of my trainings know that I often talk about changing behavior. My position on changing behavior is if you want to change behavior do not focus on the behavior. Rather, focus instead on the "drivers" of that behavior.


By telling a Millennial not to text in meetings because it is annoying and distracting and that they can't possibly be listening to the meeting while texting, is probably a set-up for nothing changing. That path will only contribute to a disconnect between the young person and the person making the request.


However, by focusing on the underlying drivers of behavior, that is, a person's sense of time, or their belief regarding how long a person should wait for a response to a call or text message, it becomes clear that different generations have completely unique ways of moving through the world. By putting our attention on these parameters, on understanding the drivers of behavior rather than the behavior itself, we can begin to understand not only the "what" of behavioral differences, but also the "why". And it is understanding the "why" of behavior that helps us to bridge the gaps between generations. By understanding the "why" of behavior we can begin to discuss if the behavior is useful in a certain situation or if a different behavior is more useful.


Managers and Their Employees

When we use the terms "Baby Boomer" or "Generation X" or "Generation Y" or  "Millennial", obviously we are generalizing over a vast population. Generalizations and useful at times, and at other times, not so useful. I tend to shy away from generalizations.


My suggestion therefore, is as follows.  If you are a manager, I suggest that your challenge is to have a discussion with your employees of all generations to understand them and to explain the way you, the manager, want the context of the team to be generated. One of the most important tasks of management is to generate and establish overtly, the context within which the desired behaviors will show up regardless of the generations that make up the team.  This requires a conversation just as I have written about in this e-Zine.


On the other hand, if you are not a manager, it is incumbent upon you to have discussions with your manager and your colleagues to determine the behavioral drivers they have and how they dovetail with or diverge from yours. Then you can decide what to adjust in your behaviors in order to move more effectively within your organization.


Generally, none of this is easy or comfortable. And it can often be convoluted and messy. But these types of conversations are necessary to effectively communicate, participate, manage, and lead in the diverse organizations that are common in today's work environment.


Be well,


Interested in Advancing your Career in Engineering
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  • "How to Make and Fulfill Your New Year Career Resolutions"
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Be well,


Steven Cerri

STCerri International
Steven Cerri
STCerri International
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