How Old-School Management Kills Work Culture

Early in my career, I had an encounter with a senior leader that left such a vivid impression on me that I can still remember it like it was yesterday. It was our first meeting as manager-employee. We were less than five minutes into our conversation when he abruptly and sharply interrupted, “Wait, is your chair higher than mine?”

At which point all conversation was halted until we swapped chairs with one another because, “employees never sit higher than their employer.”

I kid you not.

Fast-forward a few years, and I’m sitting in a manager-employee meeting with my first Millennial hire. He was stubborn, impatient, entitled, advancement hungry and in need of constant feedback.

Seriously, at one point I remember thinking that this kid was worse than a Giga Pet (just Google it). And heaven knows I couldn’t keep one of those things alive to save my life.

It was in that moment that I had a choice: Do I kill his youthful exuberance with old-school management styles like had been done to me, or do I figure out how to embrace his work attitudes and philosophies that were right and refreshing on so many different levels?

I know many executives in the U.S. are faced with the same dilemma. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, CEOs in the U.S. are predominantly Baby Boomers, and middle management is packed with Gen-Xers. That means a lot of time and cycles are spent trying to figure out how to manage and assimilate Millennials into our organizations.

It’s not just about the Millennials…it’s about creating the right work culture…one that Boomers and Gen-Xers should have been demanding all along.

What we should be doing is figuring out how to assimilate ourselves into their ways of thinking. Not just because they represent our largest employee base, but also because their way of thinking on so many things is right.

I know in my own leadership career, I’ve learned a lot from leading Millennials. Which means I’ve had to part ways with some long-entrenched management beliefs that were simply wrong and were killing work culture.

No Longer The Smartest Leader In The Room

“What was that?!” I remember one frustrated Millennial asking after her first brainstorming session with a senior leader.

It’s true, although the meeting agenda indicated it would be a brainstorming session welcoming of all good ideas, we all knew it would be hours of chest-beating and public questioning of your intelligence if you dared disagree with the brilliance of the senior leader.

Nothing irritates a Millennial more than this type of old-school bravado.

That’s because they are confident in their intelligence and ideas. They take pride in the fact that, collectively, they are the most educated of any of the working generations — with nearly 10 percent more college degrees under their belts than their senior peers.

While they aren’t necessarily looking for sole credit (another old-school management irritation), they seek leadership and cultures that capture, cultivate and provide public recognition of good ideas — not just management ideas.

I’m Not You!

In the beginning years of my management career, I remember being chased down in a hallway by a veteran senior executive. He wanted to compliment me on one of my new management hires. He told me that I should be proud of the hire, and also for the fact that the executive team could spot a “Perry-hire” a mile away.

At the time it was flattering. I mean, I was delivering exactly what they wanted: a staff that walked, talked and acted just like me.

Of course, in hindsight, I wasn’t building a culture, I was building clones. It’s true I had built an organization that could do (and do very well) — it just wasn’t a culture that valued individual thinking and contribution.

For Millenials, that will never fly. They value individuality. They want to know the “why” more than the “how.” They value having meaningful work even more than pay and responsibility.

I’ll Let You Know When You Mess Up

I once had a manager where no matter how well I did, I never heard from him. It’s not an exaggeration to say that months would go between visits. But let me tell you, when I messed up — I never heard the end of it. Ever.

When I questioned him on this, his response was for me to continue doing my thing. He would let me know if and when I was messing up.

Great. I think?

This type of management style will throw a Millennial into a tailspin. They are a generation that seeks constant feedback, mentorship and guidance. They know that honest introspection makes them better.

As uncomfortable as it may be, Boomer and Gen-X leaders who don’t provide continual feedback — good and bad — are at risk of alienating their single-largest employee population.

Your Paycheck Should Be Thanks Enough

It wasn’t but a few months ago that I was reminded that a little thanks goes a long ways.

Like all sales organizations at the end of a calendar year, it was an all out push. And true to form, the effort and the commitment of the organization was unbelievable.

With a little success, that meant that even more success should be possible… no, was possible. And before long, we forgot about the success that we had already achieved, and the only words from any of our mouths were, “We can do more!”

It wasn’t until a Millennial stopped by my office and reminded me that sometimes a “thank you” will do more than a commission check and any amount of positive mumble jumble.

And that’s the beauty of working with Millennials. They are a generation that craves instant recognition and gratification. They measure their world on how fast and how many likes their latest social posting received.

But that also means they’re self-correcting and guiding. Once they hit that magical recognition status, they know they have dialed it in, and that’s the behavior they’ll keep repeating.

In the end, it’s really not just about the Millennials. But it is about creating the right work culture that they demand — one that Boomers and Gen-Xers should have been demanding all along.

And that is a work culture that utilizes and values the individual for their unique strengths; one that continually communicates; and most importantly, one that takes the time to thank and recognize individuals for making their time at work count.