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Energizing a discussion on how to engage young employees

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 4, 2009 - So much has been said and written about managing young people in the workplace that it's hard for a speaker to address the subject without sounding clichéd or spreading stereotypes. Benjamin Akande, dean of Webster University’s School of Business and Technology, manages to pull it off, thanks to his reliance on original research and a heavy dose of humor.

As he prepares to publish a book that deals with engaging younger employees, Akande has been testing the waters by writing about the topic and recording his talk on iTunes University. In front of a live audience of middle-aged managers at the Gateway to Innovation Conference, Akande made his pitch.

Every presentation needs a good acronym, and Akande has his: The I.P.O.D. generation, standing for Internet savvy, Phone addicted, Opportunistic, Digitally conscious. He classifies this generation as people born between 1980 and 2000.

“We’re going to be selling to them, hiring them, and in some cases working for them,” Akande told the audience. “This is the generation that’s going to change our organizations.”

His overview painted a picture of a generation that doesn’t like the status quo, wants to contribute right away, seeks direction and feedback in the workplace, isn't intimidated by authority and expects ready access to top management. He said he wanted to debunk false assumptions that young employees only want praise and come into jobs overconfident. Akande made the requisite mention of multi-tasking and said the motto of young workers is "don't ask until you've Googled." 

As for his advice to the managers: Give young workers an honest appraisal, allow them to work in teams on some projects and think about ways to let them work on their own schedule.

"Time, flexibility, responsibility -– give me that and I’ll work for you for six months,” Akande said, channeling the young employee.

Ba da boom -- the managers, quite familiar with short-timers, erupted into laughter.  

“If they’re there for two years, they’re veterans," he added. "They’re upfront about that.”

For the recruiters in the audience, Akande said forget about using brochures and power-point presentations to attract young workers. Instead use flash drives that contain information about your company. He also made the point that conventional advertising doesn't reach a young audience as well as a viral marketing campaign -- which while true amounts to telling someone "go out and do something that's popular!" Easier said than done.

Perhaps the most useful piece of advice: "Don't think or act at their level or use their lingo ... just be yourself."

Akande learned that the hard way. He relayed a story about embarrassing his daughters on the way to a Hannah Montana concert by singing a Billy Ray Cyrus song. He also admitted to the audience that he knew way too many Miley Cyrus lyrics. "I can say that because you all feel me, right?" he said.

Ba da bing -- the audience erupted into laughter again.  

It was obvious from the standing-room crowd, the cackling and the nodding heads that Akande connected with the managers. But the true test of authenticity is whether young people find truth in the presentation. I spoke with two young employees at Scottrade, the financial services company, and they couldn’t have been more laudatory.

James Ball, 28, said he hoped senior employees at his company were soaking in the information. Justin Hoppe, 26, said “that defined me the whole way through.”

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