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We Can't Manage As We Did Ten Years Ago

James C. Smith, President and Chief Executive Officer, SEMA Inc.

When SEMA Inc., the software-consulting firm I founded in 1985, was a few years old, I began to notice changes in the outlook and demeanor of the employees we were hiring. They were technologically astute much more so than we had been at their age. They were casual and relaxed when it came to dress and deportment in the office, but they were direct and daring when it came to their expectations about being promoted.

All of this was a drastic departure for me, because I had spent twenty years as a career Army officer and another five with a major corporation, General Electric, before turning to entrepreneurship. In those milieus, strict blue-suit-and-tie dress codes were in order, and loyalty and paying your dues were what got you promoted. As for technical and developmental prowess, well, getting a new product to market within eighteen months was considered fast.

At first, you might not think generational changes are important for entrepreneurs. However, because people are a company's most vital assets, I firmly believe that today's business owners must be attuned to the young. If you aren't, you'll be perceived as a dinosaur – or as an albatross getting in the way. If you can't communicate, you'll lose people, and ultimately, you'll be eliminated.

Experiencing Change

In becoming attuned, you will undoubtedly experience, as I did, a change in culture and attitude that is nothing short of shocking. Let's take a look...

Culture Shock

As an age fifty-plus entrepreneur, I come from an era of strict dress codes and professional conduct. While rules weren't in writing at General Electric, workers instinctively knew what was and wasn't acceptable. At a meeting of 200 managers, for example, we males all appeared in a blue suit of some persuasion, a white shirt and a "power red" necktie. Females (of whom there were very few) were similarly attired in the female version of that uniform.

Not long ago, SEMA was in the final stage of winning a General Electric contract that would be worth as much as one million dollars to us. I had asked the technically savvy twenty-nine-year-old woman who was to be the project leader to make a presentation. We would be meeting with five white male managers, three of whom I knew well.

Because I grew up with formality, you can imagine my surprise when, on the day of the meeting, the young lady appeared at the airport properly attired but with her hair in a jumble of braids and twists considered fashionable by a segment of the young. Needless to say, I was shocked, but I managed to keep my cool. While I was trying to think how to save the situation, she announced that she had left her briefcase on the shuttle bus. Relieved, I made the presentation myself and won the contract. To this day, I don't believe we would have gotten it had she and I made trip together.

Attitude Shock

Recently, one of SEMA's bright and talented systems analysts sent me a note, saying that he had been with the company eighteen months and that because of his background and experience, we should promote him to vice president of a division and give him a twenty percent pay raise. He didn't mention his performance, which we considered merely adequate. He went immediately for the brass ring. (We subsequently dismissed him for failing to perform well on an important assignment.)

In another case, I awarded annual bonuses to about twenty employees, taking care to include a personal note of thanks in each envelope. As of now, I've heard from only four of those employees. In the past, my phone would be ringing off the hook with expressions of appreciation.

Sizing up the Shifts

Those examples point up that what was verboten a decade ago is acceptable – indeed, even admired – today. In the case of the lady with the braids and twists, I believe that these days, the hairdo would be less of a detriment to our winning the contract. At SEMA, we've long since adjusted to casual Fridays. Even at a formal managers' meeting, I'd bet the chances of employees showing up similarly attired (to say nothing of sporting jackets and ties) would be nil.

As for the young technician's demands for immediate up-the-ladder mobility and my employees' lack of outward gratitude, I've learned to take such a forward attitude in stride – and with good humor.

A decade ago, we entrepreneurs could motivate and inspire our employees with the vision we had for the growth and expansion of our companies. When we provided a sincere plan for how they were to be rewarded, we could count on their loyalty. Today, those beliefs and motivational techniques are suspect at best. With employees poised to jump at the next attractive opportunity, loyalty is short-lived.

Adjusting for Change

In managing the new generation, we who are over fifty must work diligently to understand and accept the young. Having experienced cultural and attitudinal shocks, we must proceed to the essential task of helping rather than changing them. Here are four suggestions for mapping appropriate management skills and styles:

  • Be Observant and Involved. By watching and listening, you'll find that casual dress with not-so-casual career expectations is where it's at now. Accept those realities and adapt. Roll up your sleeves. Loosen your tie. Learn to relax, or to "chill," as young workers would put it.
  • Assess Your Management Style. Understanding your style of managing has always been basic, but it is vital today. You must be adjusting constantly to be in sync with the young. I'm impatient with details and prone to push managers to get to the point, for example. Being aware of that means I'm better able to hold my tongue if, for instance, a technical prodigy insists on presenting thoroughly.
  • Accommodate the Young. Don't take offense if a young employee doesn't catch on to your way of doing things. Instead, listen. You may catch on to a better way. Didn't Michael Dell's idea about eliminating the middleman, after all, trump formidable IBM?
  • Hire Managers Attuned to the New Generation. You need your lieutenants' support as you strive to understand, accommodate, and learn from young workers. Hire those who push you to extend your own limits.

. . . . .

It isn't easy for an entrepreneur to be thrust into the brave new work of technological prowess, relaxed dress and demeanor, and breakdown in loyalty. Yet, given today's reality, we mustn't be caught off guard. Understanding that we can't manage as we did a decade ago enables us to relax and enjoy working with this incredibly talented younger generation.

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