July 31, 2012

Engaging the next generation


It’s been said a lot, studied a lot, and if you’ve hired under-30 workers, you’ve seen it a lot. This younger generation is different. Generations going back years have always seen the differences in the way they were raised, compared with the current generation, but perhaps none more so than now.

So how do you deal with this generation of workers in your company and on a jobsite? The fact is, they’re here and they’re not going anywhere — and you’re going to have to depend on them for results. You have a simple choice: You can continue to do things your way, and they’ll do things their way, and you can fight it out while your business suffers. Or, you and your foremen can learn to manage and motivate differently — and get more out of these young employees.

It’s critical that you, as an owner, and just as importantly, your foremen, learn to get the most out of the people who work for you. Wishing for the old days and complaining that this generation doesn’t work like you worked isn’t going to change a thing; but here are a few tips that might:

Be honest when hiring
Start off on the right foot. This generation works so they can have fun. If you expect long hours, weekend work and hard labour, be straight up at the beginning. If you misrepresent the job before they start, they’ll get frustrated, they’ll resent their job and your company, and they’ll underperform until they quit or are terminated.

Engage them from day one
Throw them in headfirst on day one. Give them responsibilities, but be realistic. Make them the VP of trailer operations or jobsite cleanups, and advise them that their job is to keep things neat and organized. Let them know they will be held responsible and be clear about the standards. A checklist and/or regular evaluations are key — you can’t expect them to know what you want if you don’t tell them.

Don’t tolerate helplessness, stomp it out. Don’t feed into it by answering questions they can figure out for themselves. Force them to think through and answer their own questions. For more on power questions, reread the article, Train your staff to think solutions, not problems! in the May 2012 issue of Landscape Trades.

Be a bull when it comes to company systems
Bulls don’ t mess around. They know one way — head down, horns up and straight forward. You need to be the same with company systems and procedures. If you dance around your rules or take them lightly, your younger workers will have absolutely no respect for them. They have short attention spans and they’ve been wired since the age of two to filter out non-essential information, even when it’s directed at them. They’ve grown up with 1,000 commercials a day spouting what comes out of the other end of the bull. Don’t let your words get lost in the filter. Be ultra serious about your systems and expectations.

Imagine if life depended on your employees following systems. You simply couldn’t put up with workers who don’t. It’s not that you can’t get better respect for your systems, it’s that you don’t try hard enough. For an example of a nice lesson served up cold to a Gen Y crew member by his firefighting comrads, go to http://www.firefighternation.com/article/command-leadership/managing-generation-y-firehouse-part-2. I couldn’t put it any better.

Short attention spans need short-term goals
This generation gets information in quick doses. From commercials to video games to YouTube and Facebook/Twitter, information comes fast. They deal with it; then it’s out of sight, out of mind. Convey your goals and expectations the same way. Three quick meetings a day will help.

Start of day: Set the goals, review what’s missing/needed (materials, equipment, info, etc.)
Mid-day: Review the goals. Are we on track, has anything changed?
End of day: Did we hit the goals? What’s needed for tomorrow? Recognize hard work or give constructive criticism.
It’s one or the other, but don’t be fake either way.

Use the daily meetings to coach future superstars
Gone are the days of the mindless labourer, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Young workers today like to understand the who/what/when/where and whys. They want set goals and clear direction on where they’re going. They get bored with tasks that seem to have no objective or provide no feedback. After all, most of this generation grew up with video games rather than television. In video games, every screen has a goal, a score, and a way to advance (‘level up’). All of this can be good for your business — but you have to give these employees what they need.

Give them a task, explain how to do it and why it’s done that way. Expect questions and answer them without being insulting. Give them the results (their score) at the end of each day and each job. Are we on track or falling behind? Where is their job taking them? Can they advance/level up in your company? How?

Ask for feedback in the meetings: i.e., What could have made your job faster/easier today? Explain why you’re doing your work in that order? Show me how you inspected that equipment before using it. The secret to success in almost any business, or in any role for that matter, is simple: Be the best teacher. If you’re good at your job, and if you can teach people to do it as well or better than you, you’re indispensable and you’re sure to be successful.

Sub-par performers are for golf
Be quick to pull the trigger on those who are hurting rather than helping your productivity. Their attitudes and work ethic will spread like cancer through your company. This generation in particular will resent the fact that under-performers are rewarded as well as good performers and they will reduce their standards to meet the lowest acceptable level of performance. Sooner than later, the lowest level of performance will become your company’s standard, while you shake your head saying, “I just can’t find good people.”

It’s been said that all employers get the employees they deserve. Keeping poor performers is the easy way, and the lazy way. Great companies and great foremen face the tougher challenges head on and deal with hard issues straight away. And that’s exactly what makes them great.
Mark Bradley is the president of Landscape Management Network and TBG Landscape. He writes about lessons learned in running and growing his own landscape business.