Better managers needed for war on talent

Understanding the working generations aids retention

By Kate Southam

The war for talent is no longer about recruiting the "best and brightest" – it’s about finding enough good people to fill available jobs. To win the talent war, understanding Gen X and Y is critical.

So says author and human capital expert Avril Henry who is writing a book about managing different generations of workers. She says that anyone who doubts the need to court the younger generation should consider labour supply projections.

According to Federal Government figures 175,000 people joined the workforce for the first time last year. However, by 2020, the yearly average number of "new" workers in Australia could have dropped as low as 12,500.

Ms Henry is a Boomer who started life as an accountant. She has worked for a string of blue chips including Westpac, UBS Wahlberg and Clayton Utz. After years heading finance departments and being a top-level adviser on technology issues, Ms Henry crossed to human resources 12 years ago. These days she runs her own company, AH Revelations.

She said the majority of ASX companies were headed by boards dominated by "white men over 50" and 80 per cent of management were Veterans and Baby Boomers. Yet 59 per cent of available workers were Gen X and Y.

For the uninitiated, "Veterans" were born prior to 1946; "Baby boomers" were born between 1946 and 1964. Gen X were born between 1965 and 1979 and Gen Y were born from 1980.

The big challenge for organisations – both large and small – was to develop management styles that attract and retain Gen X and Y.

So what are Gen X and Y all about?

Ms Henry describes Gen X as the first of the "latch key" kids who came home to an empty house while both parents worked. They are independent and somewhat suspicious of management. If they value their job, they will stay for between two and five years.

Gen X do not define themselves by work. They think nothing of asking for a month or two of unpaid leave to climb a mountain or work in an overseas orphanage. If professional Gen X women choose to have children, they are likely to have their first baby somewhere between 38 and 41.

Gen Y will have up to five careers and more than 20 employers. Many will have obtained two degrees by age 30 – most probably in two unrelated disciplines. Happy Gen Ys will stay in a job for as long as two years. Unhappy ones will leave as quickly as six days after they start a new role. Many Gen Ys are also from homes where parents divorced. In reaction, many want to marry and have their first child while in their 20s and Gen Y dads want to be hands on parents.

Ms Henry points out that many Gen Ys and younger Gen Xers also saw their parents downsized in the mass redundancies of the late 1990s.

"They made up their minds then that organisations don’t care how people feel," Ms Henry said. As a result both Gen X and Y are loyal to themselves first and a good manager second. Loyalty to organisations was ancient history.

Gen X and Y want feedback, coaching and access to learning and development opportunities. Gen X want "options" and "challenge". Gen Y enjoy collaborative work environments and expect respect from managers.

Ms Henry said this means great change for Australian organisations managed by people schooled in command and control.

She said managers were still reluctant to provide feedback on poor performance for fear of upsetting staff. However, they were equally uncomfortable with providing positive feedback "in case their staff get big heads."

"[Managers] need to develop conflict resolution skills, training in how to manage poor performance and in how to coach staff," Ms Henry said.

"We invest in technical development and product development but not management development," she said.
You can contact Avril Henry by email: [email protected]

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