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January 19, 2007

New Perspectives

Leading and Manging in the Millennial Generation

by Professors Larry Chonko and Buddy LaForge

In this month’s Academic Forum, Jerry Heffel, President of The Southwestern Company, joins Professors Larry Chonko and Buddy LaForge to talk about the specific challenges of managing today’s youth. Send your comments or questions about this month’s discussion to

Larry: Jerry, what differences do you see in today’s young people and the students of a decade ago?

Millennials consider themselves seriously different from their predecessors (Gen X). They consider themselves positive, upbeat, pragmatic and destined to make a positive contribution. In short, they believe they are here to solve the problems created by previous generations. As one Millennial said “Millennials will definitely not want to be known as Gen Y. Gen A+, though, that might be a different story.”

How have you seen these traits play out at Southwestern?

Jerry: Because we tend to attract the top students-those interested in taking on a challenge-they tend perhaps to buck the trend of generational labeling: Top producers have always had similar characteristics that transcend generational differences. But, today’s youth are technologically very savvy and very comfortable, having all grown up with the Internet in their homes. They can be demanding, expecting us to be on top of tech as well, which we do in our Web site communications, our use of online conferencing and webinars, and our sales training events. As one 22-year-old Canadian top producer said recently, “When it comes to tech, you need to have ‘cred’ with us or you will lose us. And your tech has cred.”

Larry: Do today’s young people seem to struggle more in an unstructured environment than the students of a decade ago?

Jerry: Perhaps. Many have been raised in structured environments. Their parents, unlike the parents of Gen X, are hyper-involved chauffeurs, attending every sports and school event possible. They’ve carefully orchestrated the Millennials’ lives from the cradle. In fact, there is a phenomenon known now as “helicopter parents,” those who hover over all their kids’ activities, ready to swoop in, provide input and take control.

Buddy: Have parents become involved with their children’s jobs at Southwestern like they sometimes do with their grades in college?

Jerry: Some parents have shown up on the bookfield for end-of-summer deliveries, and at company headquarters to help their students with checkout. There are a number of examples in the career world where parents are negotiating salaries for their children and helping them make choices.

As you see things at Southwestern, what is the greatest strength young people bring to the table?

Jerry: College-aged students bring an abundance of energy into what we do. They are used to working in teams. They’re positive, upbeat and goal-oriented, and they have incredible energy and idealism. They want to develop skills that will help them make a positive difference in the world. One student at Asbury College said recently, “If I am going to impact the Third World from the grassroots up, I need credentials and abilities, and Southwestern is helping me get both.”

Buddy: What is the greatest weakness?

Jerry: They tend to be impatient and have great expectations for their managers. Students expect more supervision and coaching because they have spent more time with their parents. They expect the same kind of a “caring comfort zone” at Southwestern.

Buddy: Have any conflicts arisen between the technological bent of these young people and the personal side of business at Southwestern?

Jerry: Well, many of them are more comfortable with online and virtual friendships than they might be at making new, face-to-face friendships. Clearly, direct selling is a face-to-face arena, and this may be a weakness they have to work harder to overcome.

Larry: This generation is said to value diversity. How do you see that being made manifest at Southwestern?

Students are used to a very diverse population on campus. They’ve grown up in more racially diverse circumstances than boomers. So they are less uptight about working with diverse individuals in their teams and organizations. Southwestern’s sales organization consists of students from every conceivable background and a number from foreign countries, as well. They all mix and merge quite easily.

Buddy: Do today’s young people find it easier to assimilate into teams than the young people of a decade ago?

In my opinion, there has been no real change over the last 10 years. In dress and manner, Millennials appear more team-like. Schools now teach citizenship and group skills because the adults want them to be more team-like.

How easily do these young folks assimilate with baby boomers?

They assimilate very well, but naturally have a different focus. They are much more pragmatic and are less concerned about face time at work. They have been told they were special since birth. Sometimes this frustrates the boomers who don’t share their sense of entitlement.

Buddy: Who sets the tone for the relationships?

They like the boomers to define the relationship, and not have the boomer try to fit in too much. They appreciate the advice of an older mentor and expect that mentor to act older in the process. However, they are not interested in constantly hearing about how it used to be. They are also very connected and used to multiple means of communicating. After school every day, AOL lights up with instant messaging and millions of communications between young people who are getting online to chat. Boomers use e-mail; Millennials use text messaging for instant communications. E-mail to them is snail mail.

Larry: How would you characterize the work ethic of this generation?

Jerry: Great! They’re confident, they’ve been raised on a steady diet of self-esteem programs and they have confidence in their generation. They have been taught to learn, work and play in teams, where “getting along” was valued. Still, they certainly are not the “Gen X/Slacker” generation that preceded them. Many of them have worked part-time jobs, done extracurricular and sports activities, and been involved in their communities and churches for years before coming to us-their work ethic is very strong.

Buddy: Does the fact that this generation is a group of rule followers who have a history of much parental supervision create some unique training issues and field issues?

Yes and no. As long as companies know how to work with these young people, they’re easy to work with. They expect a lot of attention, coaching, feedback and supervision. Our program provides instant feedback; lots of personal attention from student managers and sales managers, including personal weekend visits, weekly written communications and nightly stats calls where they visit with student managers.

Larry: What lessons have you learned?

We have learned to state “the rules” as clearly as we can and to be consistent-everything from the dress code we recommend while selling to the importance of living in a host family’s home during the summer. Millennials tend to follow the rules when they know them and they are enforced consistently.

Are you doing anything for the parents of the students who work with Southwestern?

On the parental side of the equation, we have a section of our Web site dedicated to answering parents’ questions/fears about the summer program. We’ve created parent coffees so parents have an opportunity to meet their children’s managers and get their questions answered. Also, we encourage all our student recruiters to contact the parents by phone within a week of their child being recruited. In addition, we encourage student managers to visit the parents in their homes. Parents have veto power over their children’s decisions.

Larry: Many of these young people have been showered with success. How does this need for gratification impact Southwestern training and performance?

We try to catch them doing things right from the very beginning. We build their confidence through sales school and throughout the summer. We find encouragement and positive reinforcement are the best ways to motivate young salespeople. We’ve done this for several generations and specialize in positive feedback and encouragement. Most of our effective, young sales managers are skilled at using text messaging to give instant feedback on a regular basis during the recruiting season, and voice-mail “blasts” like CallingPost to get good news out quickly. Again, rapid recognition. Our sales school is a cross between a rock concert and a Dale Carnegie course, with the atmosphere of the Final Four.

What advice do you have for direct sellers who have four generations at work-veterans, boomers, Gen X and Millennials?

Jerry: Buy a copy of Claire Raines’ book, Generations at Work. She also has a very good video training program to help the four generations get along and work together with their different strengths and challenges. In times of war, different generations bonded together for the common good and the common mission. Every direct selling company has a mission, some unique contribution they intend to give the world-this is what should be stressed over and over, as well as emphasizing what each generation can bring to that common cause. In Southwestern’s case, our mission is to help young people develop skills and character so they can achieve their goals in life. This is inspiring on a daily basis to all ages within our organization.

Can you provide a few specifics about how Southwestern deals with the sense of entitlement many in this young generation seem to have?

Jerry: The sense of entitlement evaporates if you do the following:

  • Foster a “caring comfort zone.”

  • Be a coach/mentor.lead by example.

  • They will respond if they respect you; i.e., walk your talk.

  • Give them a wide range of projects, multiple training opportunities and responsibilities.

  • They thrive on a sense of progress and recognition.

  • Speed it up. They learn quickly and can handle a lot more input than their boomer managers. They are techno-savvy, even more so than the Gen-Xers, and expect the latest, fastest, newest gadgets. Don’t give them a Commodore 64 and expect them to be happy at work.

  • They can be on their cell phone, Internet, watching TV, listening to the stereo and text messaging all at once and are perfectly happy with that.

  • Create a flexible workplace environment and make it fun!

For HR departments, retention will be the biggest problem in the future in dealing with Millennials. Retention challenges will replace recruiting challenges. Millennials will stay with the company as long as they think they are contributing and growing. Gone are the days of working for the 25-year watch. They see their career path as a buffet line where they pick and choose the companies they want to work for that will help them grow and develop. For us, orientation before the summer makes a big difference-letting students know that although they have done great things, and can continue to do great things, their customers know nothing about them and will only judge them by the attitude they show and the service they provide. Therefore, they shouldn’t expect anything from their customers unless they first deliver their very best. This re-orients young people away from “entitlement to rewards because of who I am” to “entitlement to rewards because of the good work I do.” Basically, educate them in a “service before rewards” philosophy.

Any final thoughts on what they need from us?

Jerry: Millennials need help with goal-setting and time management on the job-also, with money management because they have a “buy now/pay later” mentality and are getting into debt spending. At the same time, we can be flexible and patient in understanding their different perspectives and open to new ideas of how to accomplish something.

Larry: Thanks, Jerry. This has been very informative and may even help us in our classes.

Yeah, I know you need the help, Larry.

Thanks for including me in the Academic Forum. Young people are, as always, the future. So we really do need to learn to understand them and provide the leadership that will empower them to succeed as they merge with the preceding generations.

Raymond (Buddy) LaForge is the Brown-Forman Professor of Marketing at the University of Louisville. Larry Chonko is the Holloway Professor of Marketing at Baylor University. E-mail your questions and comments to