De-Generating the Gap

On the Friday before Christmas, Jenna Olds gave two weeks’ notice of her termination and left for a week’s vacation. My client, the president of a technology-based start-up company, was floored. Jenna was employee number two when she was hired in the fall of 2005, and as the Office Manager and Bookkeeper she was the pivotal link in the company’s day-to-day operations.

A former teacher and artist in her late 20’s, and a very “quick study,” Jenna had adapted well to her first office environment, managing multiple demands even while learning to keep an accurate set of books, without prior accounting experience. The two partners and an array of “outsourced employees” invested in her learning curve and reaped an early return as a result of her excellent administrative skills. At the same time, with the help of an accounting package which she inherited, she picked up the basics of bookkeeping and subsequently, with my help, the essentials of accounting. After almost 18 months on the job, Jenna was doing well.

On the Friday after Christmas, I began reading Workforce Crisis , a book which I had purchased several weeks earlier after attending a seminar presented by one of its authors, Tammy Erickson. On page 100, there was Jenna, effectively described by the authors in a section called “Portrait of the Young Worker,” as

  • “The first large generation of latchkey kids… on their own from a young age…
  • “Accustomed to having significant latitude and responsibility…
  • “Cherish[ing] individual freedom and decision making…
  • “Tend[ing] to be ‘tribal,’ with close relationships to a select but changeable group of peers…
  • “Independent and highly networked, both personally and technologically … technology is not an occasional tool, but a constant extension of themselves…
  • “Informal and situational and much less structured than older generations…
  • “Tend[ing] to experiment from the start, to try things and learn what works.”

O.K., I thought. That sounds like my own three twenty-somethings. As college grads, like Jenna, would any of them want her job? It requires fixed hours, being tied to a desk most of the day, responsiveness to everyone in the office, being the sole (low-level) generalist among a group of specialists, having little apparent opportunity for internal advancement, and having no outlet for her creative talents. What young college-educated worker would gravitate to that job? Probably not my kids, and not Jenna.

Four pages later, in a section headed “What Young Workers Want from Employers,” the authors pointed out:

“Given their independence and libertarian leanings, they expect to be treated individually, they want f lexible schedules, they know that their careers belong to them (not their employers), and so they value knowledge and skill more than tenure. Given their ambition, they want to contribute quickly, not work in the background…. Young people are accustomed to being marketed to, and to morphing the rules to suit the situation, and so they want to be heard on the job, they want frequent and useful feedback, and they expect to make their work fit in with other life commitments and pursuits. Since they tend to be tribal and socially networked, they want sociable workplaces, they want to connect with others (including mentors).”

Yes, that is what my kids and their cohort are looking for and finding. These weren’t the priorities for my generation at their age, or even now. Many of us have only come relatively recently to the notion that a key ingredient to a successful career is effective marketing – of oneself. And most have had to experience at least one unexpected termination before coming to grips with the fact that extended employment with one company is now the great exception.

So what do the authors advise my technology client (a member of my age cohort) to do in order to retain young workers? They emphasize “three basics, corresponding to what young employees insist on:

  1. “A thoroughly engaging workplace, featuring collegiality, teamwork, fun, and most fundamentally, democratic participation.
  1. “Ample opportunity to learn and grow, including assignments that expand skills and the leeway and mobility to try one’s hand at a variety of activities.
  1. “Attentive management, where the direct manager not only appreciates individual employees’ points of view but also attends to the employee’s needs and progress and explicitly encourages – and is accountable for – retention.”

Jenna is off in pursuit of a career in urban design, public policy and planning. She plans to spend eight months expanding on her part-time free-lance design work, handling a variety of assignments before enrolling in graduate school in September.

In the meantime, we have hired a “mid-career” woman as a successor to Jenna. The authors of Workforce Crisis say that we can expect her cohort to be “motivated, flexible, and people oriented… [with] valuable accumulated experience and knowledge, and more soft skills and customer-service orientation than the younger cohort. Among their potential weaknesses are a distrust of leadership and tendency to be self-absorbed.”

Clearly, I need to keep reading.

Alligator Bites

In a second-floor walk-up above a retail shop in Devonport, across the harbor from Auckland, New Zealand, my wife Annie and I last week discovered The Department of Doing . Curious about the name, we wandered in to the open office and were warmly greeted by Richard Hollingum, the Director of Doing, and three of his associates.

“So, what does The Department of Doing do?” we asked.

Richard handed us his brochure. On page one was the question, “So, what does The Department of Doing Do?” accompanied by the answer:

“Since this is the most frequent question we face, we’ve become rather good at answering it. Our purpose at The Department of Doing is to BRING IDEAS TO LIFE. Your ideas, our ideas, the client’s idea or their agency’s: we care not where they came from, only that good ideas actually happen.

“To this end, we will do whatever it takes…

“So long as it doesn’t involve kids’ magic shows or explosives.”

To call The Department of Doing an advertising agency would be much too narrow. Even the term “marketing communications” would be limiting. Directive 1(A) under their code of conduct specifies: “If someone comes to the Department with a problem, solve it for them. This is what The Department of Doing does. It is why we exist. Never say ‘Sorry, we don’t do that.’ Or ‘It’s not really our thing.’ Just because we haven’t done it before doesn’t mean we can’t do it. It just means that we have to find out how. Anything is possible with effort and imagination.”

For its seven employees, fulfilling the mission in part means:

“Directive 2: Be honest with yourself and with others. We want the Department of Doing to be ethical, honest and open. We have learned by experience that business is more productive, more creative, and more fun, when people trust and respect each other. We have spent too many years working in big companies (and small) which run on fear, paranoia and deceit to want to do it all over again.”

“Directive 3: Never say, ‘That’s not my job.’ The business world is full of organizers, planners, facilitators and managers. It doesn’t need any more. At the Department of Doing we only want doers. We are about making stuff, and making stuff happen. We are about taking clients’ problems and making them go away. That’s our job.”

Based on a client roster that includes GM, Hitachi, and P & G, they do the job. Based on our visit, they’re having a lot of fun. They’re not young, but their attitude is. Sometimes that can make all the difference.

Draining the Swamp

Assessing the cost of replacing an employee:

  1. Job posting (as % of compensation): 1-4%
  1. Temporary worker: 4 weeks’ salary or fees, at 25% effectiveness
  1. Placement fee: 10-30% of annual salary
  1. Managing the hiring process (ad copy, resume reading, contacting, interviewing, reference checking, follow-up): 40-120 hours of admin/exec. time
  1. Getting up to speed – effectiveness of new employee:
    1. Month 1 – 20%
    1. Month 2 – 33%
    1. Months 3-9 – 50%
    1. Months 10-12 – 75%

Overall average 48%