It is nearly impossible these days to read an industry rag from the Human Resources or management fields and not come across the topic of “the millennials”. For the uninitiated, the millennial employee (or Generation Y depending on your bias) was born between 1981 and 1999 thus making them between 32 and 14 years old as of this blog.
Studies have shown that the millennials are characterized by traits of entitlement and narcissism (based on personality surveys), confidence in their abilities that border on hubris, a focus on becoming wealthy (75% of respondents in a University of Michigan study said this was the main goal of employment), and a need for social interaction and team leadership that most managers don’t understand.
They idolize the dot-com entrepreneurs who wore flip flops to work and took the reins of an organization before they hit 30. Conversely, they don’t understand the career trajectory of the industrial CEO who started as a junior engineer and ascended over a 30 year career with the same firm. They learned to network and develop relationships in cyberspace and came to believe that the only measure for the quality of your ideas was how many “likes”, “retweets”, or “trackbacks” you got from the digital masses. They look quizzically at relationships that take time, and substance, to nurture.
In short, the kids who grew up winning trophies for coming in 10th place and developed social skills in a world connected via Prodigy Chat à Facebook à Blogspot à Twitter are now sitting two cubes down from your office believing that they could run your firm (better than you) if only given the chance.
While there is a tremendous amount of fodder on the millennial conundrum available (including all of the strengths they bring to the table), it is interesting to note that I could find little on the topic of the millennial project manager. I think this is a problem. In so many ways, the discipline of project management seems to be the equivalent of “millennial crack”. Let’s review:
- Millennials want to work in team-based environments – Check
- Millennials want to avoid boredom by working on short-term endeavors – Check
- Millennials want to take on leadership responsibilities without waiting for a promotion to line management – Check
- Millennials want strong structure and metrics that allow them to demonstrate performance and measure accomplishments – Check
This list could go on. The point is that the field of project management offers millennials many of the careers experiences they expect coupled with the “short cut to the top” that they desire. What’s more, millennials equate (given the reduction of insight to 140 characters and a complete lack of all respect for the dewey decimal system) the recitation of jargon with expertise…something the broader field of project management has struggled with for decades. It is one thing to know what the critical path is, it is another thing entirely to identify it, use it correctly, and have the battle scars from all the times it failed you. As such, it is quite likely that the PM field will soon be rife with this category of employee and indeed, in my experience, already is. Meaning, if you have not already had to deal with the millennial PM, you soon will.
Here are the top 5 issues I have seen with millennial PMs…You would do well to keep these in the back of your mind during your next coaching session/status meeting/annual review/awkward hallway discussion.
1. Leadership and power: Millennial PMs tend to rely too heavily on expert and referent power. They believe that if they are the smartest person in the room, and can name drop their boss, people will naturally fall in-line. The millennial has not yet had the experience to understand emotional intelligence, charismatic influence, or the power of organizational politics. They fail to understand influence techniques like exchange, coalition building, or superordinate goals. These power bases (an appreciation for and understanding of) come from experience. As such, while they can recite many theoretical aspects of leadership, they struggle to apply most of them effectively.
2. Follow through: Put simply, millennials love the honeymoon and hate the marriage. Their thirst to “work on new and exciting things” often causes them to be super engaged and excited at the beginning of a project but more distant and distracted as time goes on. Their acculturation of “instant gratification” makes the long slog of project management difficult to deal with. Don’t be surprised if your twenty-something PM is great at project kick-off meetings but rather lax in producing status reports.
3. Respect for the org. chart: As PMs we are constantly negotiating with functional managers. Our ability to thrive relies on our ability to respectfully influence the managers that hold our needed resources. Alas, the millennial believes that titles mean little and that (their over-inflated sense of) expertise reigns supreme. As such, many millennials find themselves in hot water when they sit across from a (real) expert vying for scarce resources using the leadership skills referenced in number one.
4. The (monetary) value of experience: The millennial PM will equate project success with career success at an early stage of their development. Said another way, the millennial believes that if he/she was able to deliver one or two projects on time, then this clearly means that they are ready for fancy titles, large paychecks, and a window office. This is a trait common across all millennials, but is particularly true in the hard-metric world of project management. Do not be surprised that if during the first review cycle after your millennial PM delivers an on-time, on-budget project they are asking for a Director title and assignment to lead your PMO. The concept of “putting in the time” means little to this crowd.
5. Translation: The millennial PM believes that the more corporate jargon and PM lexicon they can insert into a sentence the more impactful that sentence will be. It is not uncommon to hear something like the following in a status meeting: “We are focused on improving the CPI of this initiative in order to create better synergy with the other priorities coming out of the corner office. We expect the next fiscal Q to bring an augmented focus on establishing enterprise awareness of the project’s value prop.” It does not occur to them that saying, “if we want the rest of this place to keep thinking this project is important, we have got to get our costs under control.” Additionally, millennials rarely have the ability to tailor their communication to the appropriate audience. It is seemingly lost to them that the same tone and message you deliver to your lead engineer is not the same one you use when meeting with your executive sponsor (or vice versa). The nuance of communication comes with time and experience which…well…you get the drift.
At this point in the article, you are either, A) Chuckling (if you are an older senior manager) or B) Fuming (if you are a millennial). I concede that these are gross generalizations and not every PM aged 32 and younger suffers from these issues. Alas, as a wise man once said, stereotypes exist for a reason.
If you take anything away from this post (regardless of if you are chuckling or fuming) let it be that the millennial PM is a different-in-kind resource than what corporate America has dealt with before. Their motivators, personalities, value systems, and approaches to work may seem foreign and out of place with the rest of the organization. This, in and of itself, does not make the millennial good or bad. It just makes them someone who will require the time, patience, and coaching of the organization to make the best use of their skills.
Being aware of these 5 issues may make your relationship with the millennial PM not only more productive, but easier to deal with as well. But if you ever DO get frustrated by their seemingly out of place antics and requests, don’t let it bother you too much. Just remember:
One day they’ll be the ones shaking their heads in disbelief while trying to get the Generation Z crowd to understand why it is important to take off their Google Glass when leading status meetings.
What issues with millennial project managers have you seen and how have you overcome them?
Matt Ferguson, PMP, CSM currently serves as Director of Consulting Services for ESI International and is focused on establishing the organizational PM practices that support ESI’s learning programs.
He is also a recovering millennial PM (under the expert tutelage of LeRoy Ward) who both chuckled and fumed as he wrote.
He may be reached directly at email@example.com