Whatever the opposite of a “digital native” is, I qualify. I didn’t touch my first computer until after I had graduated college, got my first email address in 1997, and I didn’t become a serious internet user until early in the 2000s. Considering I got into tech as a third career at age 33, and founded my first company at 41, you might guess I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about how people underestimate my generation — illustrated by tech execs talking about making products “easy enough that your mom could use” and portrayals of anyone over 50 as hapless.
And yet, those aren’t the only stereotypes that make me want to #disruptaging and go to battle; I also get protective of the much-maligned millennials.
When building BlogHer Inc., we were aware that we didn’t fit the mold of a start-up founding team. Three women. None of us an engineer. None of us with an MBA. None of us in our 20s. And yet despite — maybe even because of — all that, we raised four rounds of funding and achieved an exit for our company. A rare feat for any entrepreneur.
The lesson I took: When you know assumptions are being made about you, let it drive you to discard assumptions you make about others.
We built a team of people who were passionate about our mission, who cared about our community because they were part of it. Who had skills but not always pedigree.
I ended up managing a team ranging in age from just out of college to even more boomer than I! And here’s what I discovered about working with a diverse, multigenerational team.
1. Everyone has something that makes them tick.
A long ago boss once told me that he figured out the one thing that mattered most to each of his employees, and set their goals and incentives with it in mind. For some it was money; for others it was title or office; for others it was a sense of ownership, preferably accompanied by actual ownership in the form of stock options. Still others wanted to beat metrics. Or have a sense of autonomy. Or more flexibility. Or to be included in meetings and conversations that would help them grow. He spent time figuring out each team member’s primary driver and found that people in the same demographic could have very different psychographics around workplace satisfaction and motivation.
2. Everyone needs validation.
The rap on millennials is that they’re needy and need to be told “Good job.” Well, that’s called validation, and we all need it in our workplace. Once you know what makes them tick, you can customize how you validate your team. Some may indeed want verbal praise (and, really, no one will hate it). But, as an alternate example, others will want to see you take a lighter touch on their deliverables, because it means you trust their skills and choices. So, could you micromanage and nitpick every piece of output from team members? Sure, I bet, you could make everything just a little, bit better, but begin weighing that incremental improvement against the lack of validation it shows your team and let some things go.
3. Nobody accepts unfairness because it’s how things “have always been done.”
Don’t let yourself get too far removed from what it was like to be a junior employee. Don’t let yourself forget how “paying your dues” felt arbitrary, punitive and driven by assumptions, not reality. When millennials advocate for policies and conditions that are more flexible, humane and employee-centric, it’s good for everybody. Imagine how nice it would have been to have those policies when you were coming up. Avoid buying into the idea that because you had to pay your dues, everyone has to go through exactly what you did. It’s called progress. You wanted it when you were early in your career. Why not now?
4. Every staffer who speaks up is indicative of many more who won’t.
People get annoyed with millennials because they speak up. They ask for change. They push back on the status quo. They (#shudder) COMPLAIN. But I’ve rarely heard a complaint from one of my younger staff members that wasn’t shared by others. I think we can all accept that one customer complaint reflects a bigger group of customers suffering in silence, so reframe your thinking to look at your employees as one more set of customers to satisfy.
I’ve worked with hardworking, passionate, creative people from every generation. And it helps to stay connected to the junior employee inside you, to remember the individual you wanted to be recognized as, and to acknowledge that every team member has something to teach you and your other team members, just like you always have!
Known as the co-founder and COO of BlogHer, Inc., Elisa now consults with entrepreneurs and organizations to take their big ideas to the next level, and has her debut book, “Road Map for Revolutionaries: Resistance, Activism, and Advocacy for All” coming out in 2018.