Generational issues have been a hot HR topic for years, and the urgency to develop a plan to integrate these generations is becoming even greater now that economic factors are forcing Baby Boomers to stay in the workforce longer than they anticipated. Along with this phenomenon, the workforce is integrating Gen Y workers, a group that brings a very different skill set  — and expectations — to the workplace. The anticipated workforce shortage that scared executives earlier in the decade is now simply a non-issue.

This presents an interesting challenge for Gen Y. What once appeared to be a fast-track to positions of authority as older workers retire is a now fierce competition for available jobs, a fight that pits early-career professionals with much more experienced counterparts. For Gen Yers lucky enough to have a job, the opportunity to move up and contribute to meaningful projects  (identified by Herb Sendek and Buddy Hobart in Gen Y Now to be one of the major needs of Gen Y workers) has decreased considerably.

The challenge, as Hobart and Sendek identify in the book, is leadership. Many Baby Boomer and Generation X managers have negative perceptions of Gen Y, which lead to managerial decisions that hurt everyone, i.e. the manager doesn’t get out of the employee what he or she needs and the Gen Y worker in turn doesn’t get the fulfillment/experience that they are looking for. The inevitable consequence is that the Gen Y worker “checks out” and eventually moves on. This situation is often blamed on the Gen Y worker (they’re lazy, they’re entitled, they don’t try to fit in, they’re babied, they’re spoiled, they’re not willing to ‘put in their time’) as opposed to the individuals who are leading them. For both short- and long-term results, organizations simply can’t function this way and hope to be competitive in attracting/retaining talent.

However, where larger organizations might falter in assimilating Gen Y talent, start ups and smaller entrepreneurial companies can thrive. There are several reasons:

  • Gen Y’s skill set in technology, communication, information-gathering and well-rounded thinking make them ideal employees for startups that need people who can do more than one thing well in order to survive.
  • Gen Yers prefer flat organizations with an open communication structure, and rarely feel uncomfortable expressing concerns. This makes it much easier to get candid intelligence regarding business/operational challenges, which can positively impact executive decision-making.
  • Gen Y thrives on feedback. In a startup environment, feedback is impossible to avoid, since projects often have immediate results, including the trend line of revenue. Combined with honest, constructive personal feedback, a Gen Y worker will know exactly where they stand.
  • Gen Y feels a need to be working for an organization that aligns with their values. Passion for their work and the quality of work-life will often allow smaller companies with low HR budgets to attract top-flight Gen Y talent.
  • Gen Y knows technology. While this is often dismissed as a given, many leaders don’t quite understand the kind of impact this can have on operational effectiveness. My own experience has reflected this — by creating a spreadsheet in Excel using some of the lesser-used functions, I was able to cut the time it took our operational managers to complete payroll from four hours to 30 minutes, while also reducing entry errors. These seemingly small pieces of knowledge can often impact some of the less-visible operational efficiencies.

The challenge for startup leaders is to have a broad understanding of the type of leadership style that best works with this generation. Despite common myths, Gen Y (as a whole) isn’t looking to become a CEO tomorrow — they just want the opportunity to make a difference in their organizations, even in more support-oriented roles. However, Gen Y’s comfort with expressing opinions and taking charge can be unnerving even for the most open-minded leaders. By understanding the strengths (and weaknesses) of this generation — and a continued commitment to developing this talent — a start up executive can accomplish a great deal with fewer resources, a must-have for any company that trying to prove itself in the marketplace.