Is Gen Y Driving Your Business or Driving You Nuts?

BRENDAN LAWLEY, CEO of Brad Teal Real Estate, looks at the impact of a younger workforce on the industry. How can we attract and retain the present generation into our business and have them perform at their peak?

IF YOU’RE THE principal or office manager of a real estate business, it’s almost impossible to ignore discussions or commentary regarding Generation Y. Gen Y-ers (your employees currently aged between 18 and 30) form an integral part of our workforce now and into the future, so it’s important for us as business leaders to consider what makes them tick when developing strategies and work practices that effectively attract, retain and develop staff.

We operate in an era in which the generations have never been so categorised, analysed and debated: Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964), Generation X (1965 to 1982) and Generation Y (1983 to 2000). But before we explore some policies for implementing effective strategies, cultural changes and work practices, it’s reasonable to ask ‘Are the generations really that different?’

To highlight what I consider to be a resounding ‘yes’, a simple illustration of the evolution of the Gen Y demographic can be found by plucking an example from an industry predominantly comprised of that age group – sport.

For the uninitiated, the 1970 AFL (then VFL) Grand Final was the best comeback in a Grand Final in history. In the last three minutes of the game a 20 year old Brent Crosswell (in the Gen Y demographic of his time) kicked a goal that put Carlton in front, having trailed their opposition by 44 points at half-time. Due to the manner in which the game was then played, it was inconceivable in the 1970s for a team to win from that position (and it would still be pretty impressive today).

When Crosswell kicked the goal, his teammates ran in to congratulate him from … nowhere! Not one of his brothers in arms (un-tattooed arms incidentally), ran to him, congratulated him, high-fived him, hugged him or acknowledged the feat in any way. They simply went about what they were there for and set up for the next centre bounce.

Fast-forward to today. In any game of AFL, NRL, A-League and so on, any player who kicks a goal will receive contact from at least one of his teammates 100 per cent of the time – whether they have just won a nail-biter or are 50 points behind. Even before the actual game starts and the players are in the change room, they form a tight huddle by putting their arms around each other. They then run onto the ground, but pause so they can run through the banner together. The captain tosses the coin, then runs back to another team huddle. After the half-time break they come out onto the ground (having been isolated and together for a full twenty minutes) and form … yep, another huddle.

So what has happened? Why was this need for public affirmation not important decades ago, yet there is now a generation that craves regular, overt encouragement, motivation and positive reinforcement from those around them? And more specifically, how do we manage it?

Firstly, do yourself a massive favour; get used to it and accept that things are different. If a situation arises in your agency regarding a Gen Y-er and you find yourself starting a sentence with the words ‘When I started work’ or ‘When I was your age’, stop!

The societal and cultural environment that existed when you were in your twenties bears no resemblance to today, so stop wishing things were different. Something needs to change, and it’s you!

If you feel like the gulf between you and Gen Y is too great and you just can’t relate to them (or don’t have the patience), employ someone who can. This is not an admission of defeat; it is being smart. You never know, with another senior person on board you might just find that you have more time to work on your business.

So what are the challenges for us as business leaders? One of the issues facing us is that we may often be put in a position where we are relating to Gen Y-ers in a manner they haven’t faced before. We are dealing with a generation that comes from a school system that acknowledges achievement when there often isn’t any, and/or who have been raised in an environment of compensatory or consultative parenting.

This makes Gen Y a generation of expectation. They expect reward, praise, forgiveness and understanding. And they expect it when? Now!

As much as they might come to us from a ‘cotton wool’ background, however, Gen Y can be fiercely independent and confident. Many have grown up in an environment where their family has become fractured and they have shown the resilience and confidence to get through such a situation. They bounce back, deal with issues and move on. They are empowered and confident, many coming from a participative parenting environment that is more consultative than autocratic.

Such an upbringing, therefore, doesn’t necessarily make them poor workers. It makes them typical of their generation, and if you don’t provide these things – praise, reward and so on – they will get them from someone else.

Gen Y won’t stick around in an environment they don’t approve of or relate to, or one you think they should be loyal to. They often have no commitments holding them to a job and no need for job security (as with many Baby Boomers or Gen X-ers). They are probably still living with their parents and will continue to do so until their late twenties, so they have very little financial stress.

They are a transient generation who will be employed on their terms, not yours. If they don’t like their job, they will leave and probably move into a totally unrelated field. They should be admired for this. They have the confidence to take a risk and try their hand at something else and will not compromise their enjoyment of work. You won’t see many Gen Y-ers in a job they hate.

Gen Y is a generation that considers change to be a normal way of life, so if you are a conservative, traditional manager who clings to the past, I have some bad news.

Where we might see the implementation of change as being a big deal, Gen Y view it as normal and as a natural part of life. They are great change agents and their enthusiasm and energy make any change process much easier than working with people who instinctively try to block or resist it.

You must ensure your organisation has a genuine culture of change. If you are not personally leading by example by embracing change and being an active change agent in your agency, or even worse are in denial about change, you are going backwards.

You may not notice it at a day-to-day level, but as a director or manager your behaviour is under constant scrutiny from staff. The signals you send have a massive impact on the change culture of your agency. If you merely pay lip service to the technological, structural or cultural changes required for the growth and development of your business, you are in real strife.

Don’t expect that issuing edicts instructing staff to comply with workplace changes will have the desired result if you don’t believe it yourself. Develop and encourage an environment where change is a seamless part of the culture and you are evolving all the time.

Critically review your policies and procedures, including input from your Gen Y-ers. Some of your policies may be in place purely because they have always been there and may be outdated. If Gen Y can’t see a reason for it, good luck trying to get them to buy in.

We all know that one of the biggest challenges facing our industry is attracting quality staff. The process of creating a positive first impression starts before they are even employed. If they are coming for a recruitment interview in a crusty, old, tired-looking office and being interviewed by a crusty, old, tired-looking manager, it’s game over. They want to work for a progressive, modern, innovative company who embraces change, has a vibrant social environment and values its staff. Make no mistake, when you invite Gen Y-ers in for an interview, they are interviewing you!

Good applicants know they are good applicants and will be making a choice of whether they work for you or someone else. So if you interview a great candidate, don’t muck around in signing them up. Back your judgment because if you waste time by interviewing a few more ‘just to compare’, you will lose them.

Consider carefully which questions to ask and what information to give about the company. A Gen Y-er will not care that the company has been around for 120 years, as their mindset does not rate stability and job security as a major consideration. Tailor your interview to focus on what’s in it for them; training, career development, flexibility, autonomy, fun, working with other Gen Y-ers, agency social activity, and so on. Ditch the old ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ type questions. Have a Gen Y staff member participate in the interview. Ideally, this would be someone they will be working with, not necessarily as a manager.

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Brendan Lawley

Brendan Lawley spent over a decade in the real estate industry as CEO of Brad Teal Real Estate. He is currently the Director and Owner of Thunder Road Fitness