Does Gen Y Want to Run Your Company?

Bruce Tulgan is one of the top thinkers in the world of generational differences and intergenerational communication.  In fact, he has served as a mentor to me in this space for the better part of a decade.

On his blog, Bruce recently shared this scenario:

At a major food conglomerate, summer interns are usually given an assignment, such as a big data-entry project, that they can complete during the course of their summer employment.  An executive there shared with me the story of one of his latest interns.  On the first day, she announced she had invented a new cereal. She had a box, complete with artwork and a bag of her cereal inside, that she called her ‘prototype.’ Clearly she had gone to great lengths, including the recipe and nutritional information and preparing a slide show. She wanted to know when she would be able to pitch her idea to senior executives. “The sooner the better,” she said.

Here’s my question: what would you do if you were this intern’s manager?

If you are a member of Gen Y yourself, you probably admire the intern’s enthusiasm and initiative but at the same time realize that she has no idea how products are actually developed in the organization.  There is a lengthy and complex process involved that can’t be circumvented because a twenty-one year-old college student has an idea.

For this reason, if you are a Baby Boomer or Gen X-er, you are probably annoyed at the whole situation.

Deliver Measured Feedback

In my opinion, the right way to handle this is to praise the intern for all of the forethought and preparation she has given to her summer job.  Then, you must explain exactly what her responsibilities will be, as well as the protocol for working within the organization.

Talk through how her tasks should be accomplished, giving her the freedom to be creative within certain boundaries.  Encourage her to use her unique expertise and talents to make a difference one small step at a time.  Make sure she goes away with an understanding of the big picture, and with the feeling that her duties will be meaningful and will add value to the company’s operations.

When it comes to this cereal prototype in particular, work with her to share the idea in a way that will be most easily accepted in the company culture.  For instance, maybe there is an in-house innovation committee she can approach, or a general product development inbox for employee ideas.

Keep the Door Open

You do not want to chastise her for overstepping her bounds, or dismiss the cereal project outright.  Not only will this alienate the intern and render her unproductive and sullen for the rest of the summer, but word of your bureaucratic smackdown will travel in this group of interns and possibly to future prospective interns as well.

Offer Other Networking and Learning Opportunities

It will certainly be motivating to give her an opportunity to meet senior executives, though again, you must educate her on specific dos and don’ts (and a lengthy presentation on a new cereal is probably among the don’ts).  Frame this guidance by saying that you just want to help her make the best possible impression.  It’s also a good idea to set up meetings with superstar employees in different areas of product development who can mentor her in this area of interest.

In summary, younger Gen Y-ers may think they are ready to run your company right away.  More often than not, they have terrific ideas and bring a much-needed fresh perspective, but don’t understand who/what is involved or the best way to communicate their point of view.  Give them a gentle reality check while supporting their eagerness to learn and do great work.

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  • gardnersmitha

    “There is a lengthy and complex process involved that can’t be circumvented because a twenty-one year-old college student has an idea.”
    Why not? It’s quite possible the ‘lengthy and complex process’ is flawed, and the company may have missed many growth opportunities exactly BECAUSE of this process. This isn’t to say there aren’t advantages to process and regulations – but instead to suggest that very little true innovation comes out of established routines and bureaucratic conventions. 

    The quoted sentence above is shortsighted at best, ageist and discriminatory at worst. 

    • alexandralevit

      Thanks for the comment!  The process may be flawed, or it may not be.  Intrapreneurship is welcomed in most organizations, but even that has to be done in a way that will inspire rather than annoy people.

      • Thought-provoking article! It definitely depends on the company, I think. In some places that exact paragraph might be encouraged/expected. In others, some “management” will have to go on to guide the idea to something more workable. Proper reaction also probably greatly depends on the quality of idea as well!!

        • alexandralevit

          Good point. If an idea is downright silly, maybe you aren’t quite so diplomatic in your response.

  • Jamespfitz

    In all seriousness, you could also tell her that kindergarten is over and not everybody gets a trophy just for participation. While her self-esteem may have been a paramount consideration in her life until now, no one in the real word really cares, and that interns don’t design cereals or pitch new product ideas. If she wants to succeed she’ll spend more time considering the needs of her employer and less time on what makes her feel “special.” Sounds like no one ever had a serious conversation with this woman or told her the cold truth. An internship is as good a time as any.

    • alexandralevit

      This exact scenario is indeed occurring in a lot of organizations, because after years of their parents praising their every move, young Gen Ys are being told for the first time that something isn’t immediately possible. And they are shocked.

  • How good is the idea?