Lazy. Entitled. Fickle. Freighted with their own inscrutable agendas. These are the kinds of things people say about cats — and millennials. For today's managers, the generation born after 1980 is a favorite punching bag.
It's not hard to see why, given that they're the generation of Lindsay Lohan, Jersey Shore, and flip-flops as appropriate office footwear. While it's obviously silly to stereotype an entire generation, whether you're Tom Brokaw or me, so many people have spent so much time criticizing the millennials that I think it's time an old lady stuck up for them. I want to be clear: I'm not doing it because I'm a cougar. I am vouching for them because I see their strengths every day in the Do Something office; all but two of our 21 full-time staff are millennials. The very same characteristics that are frequently maligned are the very qualities that make millennials awesome employees. The trick, of course, is to know how to exploit them.
Let's start with the issue of how millennials multitask. While studies show that they think they're better at it than they actually are, the reality is they do it and they're not going to stop. A recent study found that millennials typically use up to seven devices, apps, and programs at once — texting, G-chatting, tweeting, and listening to music while working on that memo. Where I make a list and slowly cross things off one at a time, Aria Finger, Do Something's 27-year-old rock-star COO, will sit in front of three screens (two PC, one iPhone) and plow through three times as many tasks in the same amount of time. I see my role as defining a clear goal, giving her the resources to take the shot, and then getting out of the way while she dunks.
Millennials don't have traditional boundaries or an old-fashioned sense of privacy. They live out loud, sharing details of their lives with thousands of other people. Of course there are the obvious risks to this — say, that unflattering, reputation-damaging photo that should have been deleted from Facebook — but while you shake your cane at them for indulging in TMI, I see their openness as a great opportunity. For instance, when our summer intern @jimmyaungchen tweets and Facebooks about something he achieved at work, that's free marketing for Do Something to the 1,500 people in his immediate network. I now ask job applicants how many Facebook friends and Twitter followers they have.
We all know that one of the key traits of millennials is that they feel and act entitled. For their whole lives, they've been told that they're the best, that they can be anything they want to be, whether that's the next Mark Zuckerberg or the next American Idol. You say self-indulgent and self-obsessed, I say optimistic and self-confident. They are hungry for responsibility, and I give it to them. Earlier this year, Melanie Stevenson, who does business development at Do Something and is all of 26, walked up to me and said, "I'd like to expand us to five international markets by the end of this year." Awesome. Bold. Audacious. Every employer should want a dozen Melanies working for them. (We launched in Portugal in June, and expect to add three more countries this month.)
An entitled person tends to be high maintenance — millennials may well be the poodles of humanity, demanding constant grooming and incessant praise. But celebrating small victories shouldn't be seen as just a way to kowtow to this generation's oversized egos; at a recent conference, Jack Welch said that it's a great — and underused — management tactic. We should learn to recognize the contributions of each team member more explicitly. We should give feedback more than once a year in a stilted annual performance review. If your people aren't worthy of praise, get rid of them. If they deserve praise, then be generous with it. Praise is one of the most affordable tools out there: It's free!
Some of you will have read each of the four points above and come up with some quiet (or maybe not-so-quiet) rebuttals. You know what? You're right. Each thing I've said about millennials can be read as a problem. But each one can also be viewed as an opportunity.
Maybe the real problem isn't this generation — maybe it's that the rest of us don't manage them for greatness, for maximum effect. What we often forget is that this generational clash is a timeworn tale. Whatever side of the divide you're on, it feels new. Yet it happens over and over — say, once a generation. And in the end, the kids will always win. They're sort of like cats.
Do Something CEO Nancy Lublin wishes she were born after 1980.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.