Managing Millennials: Thoughts from a Colorado CEO

Alan Sage is the co-founder and CEO of Digabit, Inc., a software company providing web-based libraries for technical documentation and parts catalogs. He is a successful serial entrepreneur with 20 years of experience leading software development and sales teams. I’ve been working with Alan since 2009, and have always been impressed with his commitment to company culture. I am honored that he has decided to share a few of his thoughts on the Blue Note Blog.

– Chris

“Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.”

-George Orwell

There have been numerous articles and blog posts about the Millennial generation, and about managing Millennials in the workplace. While there may, in fact, be some differences between the generations currently in the workforce, I believe that these differences are irrelevant to how you run a company. I believe that it is a mistake for a CEO to allow generational stereotypes to affect how specific employees are treated and managed.

Some companies have made wholesale policy changes based solely upon what they have read that younger workers want. In contrast, I believe that people—of whatever generation—must be managed as individuals. My advice is, “Talk to them, and focus on what all generations and all talented people have in common.”

Recently, I had a Millennial ask me about his “career path.” I responded with the classic question, “Well, where do you want to be in five years?”

He replied, “I want your job.” Then he paused and added, “Well, actually, I want to have my own venture-capital-financed company, like ours.”

Some CEOs would have ascribed this young man’s brash statement to “Millennial culture.” However, in truth, it is something I could have easily said to my boss when I was that age.

Over the past decade, I have become something of an expert in using the Culture Index to build and manage organizations. The Culture Index can trace its roots back more than 70 years, to John Cleaver (DiSC) in the 1950’s, who was influenced by Walter Clark. Cleaver worked for Clark in building out AVA (Activity Vector Analysis) in the 1940’s.

The Culture Index quantifies the traits that are most relevant to success in various kinds of jobs, and is used to match behavioral style and abilities to the specific requirements of a position. While it is possible to pound a square peg into a round hole, this is a mistake in terms of building an organization. It is hard on the peg, and it’s hard on the hole.

It is best to fill jobs with people whose traits make them natural fits for those positions. In doing so, a company follows Peter F. Drucker’s injunction to “staff from strength.”

Culture Index data shows that there are, in fact, some differences between the generations. Overall, the Millennial generation represents about a 10% shift from the Generation X pattern. Specifically, when compared with Generation X, Millennials have lower “Autonomy,” higher “Social Ability,” more “Patience,” and less “Conformity” (the four items in quotes are constructs quantified by the Culture Index).

While the differences between generations are interesting, it is important to keep in mind that every generation comprises tens of millions of unique individuals. Knowing what generation a given person belongs to tells you nothing that is relevant to that person’s performance in a given job. If you want to build a successful multi-generational company, you must create a culture that can be embraced by all.

HR experts have put together lists of what employees are seeking, but, in my experience, everyone wants, first and foremost, a certain degree of financial and job security. Once someone has a fair market salary, money is not the top motivator or driver of productivity. At that point, what people want is a fair boss who shares information freely.

Ryan Scott wrote an article in Forbes earlier this year, noting that Millennials want a “cause,” but I’m not sure this is truly unique to their generation. I believe that most people want to make a difference in their world. They want to be involved with something bigger than themselves. And, they want to be successful. People like the idea of “leaving this place better than we found it.” And, I believe that most people want to “do the right thing.”

My industry, software, is a “talent” business. So, we are working to assemble and maintain the most talented team anywhere. It’s rare that people interview with our company, and then don’t want to work for us.

I credit this to our people, and to the culture that we have created at Digabit. Because of the talent level we are seeking, we recognize that it is just as important to “sell” candidates during the hiring process as it is to vet them. We also strive to provide amenities that are above and beyond what people expect in a work environment.

However, Digabit’s culture is not defined by our free soda, office foosball, or unlimited paid time off (we want you to work hard, but want you to play hard too). Rather, our culture is shaped by our philosophy regarding whom to hire, whom to promote, and whom to terminate.

My personal observation is that there are no generational barriers when it comes to who’s staring you down from the other end of the ping pong table.

What we have created at Digabit is a culture of personal responsibility and mutual trust. We recognize that employees need to take time away from the office to recharge, to get well, and to attend to family and personal matters.

We understand that activity doesn’t always equal productivity, and that winning is what matters. Toward this end, we trust our employees to do what is right. We also empower them to make decisions, and to take initiatives aligned with the company’s goals. My experience with Millennials is that most react positively to these freedoms, just like employees with a little more seasoning.

Here in Colorado, with our low unemployment, many CEOs find themselves putting extra effort into not only recruitment and retention, but also motivation. And as every manager knows, motivation is not a new challenge.

I learned the other day about a CEO that actually asked if his employees could “walk faster.” On the one hand, I get it. Start-ups and high-growth businesses require a level of intensity to be successful. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that his statement did not land well.

Many Colorado CEOs have expressed concern about the “work ethic” of Millennials. In my first startup (in the mid-1990s), 10- to 12-hour days were commonplace. This is not the case these days, but it’s not a problem with Millennials. Some issues are regional/geographical, rather than generational.

Colorado CEOs must recognize that, at least in the technology sector, many talented people choose to work in Colorado because of the Colorado lifestyle. Trust me, there are plenty of Millennials in Silicon Valley that are starting early and staying late, and it’s not just for the free meals.

Beyond a certain point, putting in more hours actually becomes counterproductive. And, costs are lower in Colorado than they are in Silicon Valley. Perhaps that’s why (according to NPR) the number #1 job in Colorado in 2014 was “software developer.”

I believe that, with results-focused leadership, a Colorado-based software company can compete with anyone, anywhere. Millennials are not a problem—they are the largest generation in the work force today. They grew up with technology, and if a company hires the right people, and manages them with integrity, that company will be successful for generations to come.