Time to earn your trophies, millennials
I am a millennial, born in 1985. I am a mom of three young kids and wife to a full time working spouse in a fast-paced career of his own. I am a commercial litigation and employment lawyer. I also manage our law firm with offices in three states and over forty employees, from Gen Z to Baby Boomers. I hope this sets the tone for the message I would like to send.
Wearing all of these hats at the same time and trying to navigate not only my clients’ issues in the workplace but, let’s be honest, my own tough issues that present at our firm as the Managing Attorney, I do a lot of thinking about generational differences and how they impact employees’ interactions with one another. Let me tell you, they have an impact. I would venture to guess there has been no other time in my generation’s short history as leaders that we, as millennials, have seen these differences so pronounced. COVID-19 is a challenge for everyone—big business, small business, no business—you are affected. Of course, we existed and were impacted by September 11th and we also have been impacted by the 2008 recession. But we did not lead through it. We were too young. Our parents, teachers, and advisors led us by the hand through those crises. While those experiences no doubt shaped our worldview, we did not feel firsthand the squeeze of losing a job when our family depended on it to pay bills, of having to lay people off, of fearing how we would protect our children and families through it all. Every generation has something that forces them to truly come of age and step into the arena. This is our time, for better or worse.
One of my favorite millennial stereotypes (which I love because, let’s be honest, it’s true) is that we all got trophies for just showing up and participating. Well, my friends, it’s time we earn our trophies. How we respond and perform in crisis as leaders will be the turning point for our businesses and will be a deciding factor in how our communities and families weather this storm. Here are my thoughts based on observations in my own business that fly counter to many of our instincts and how our generation is wired to operate. I believe if we do not consciously make these adjustments, we will struggle to succeed through the crisis and perhaps worse, will not recover as the leaders we hope to be.
You must be present for your team; you cannot bail or make excuses. I get that we grew up in a time when the internet existed and we have had social media, the ability to video chat from your phone, and instant messaging for most, if not all, of our adult lives. While this technology is great, it has led to millennials hiding behind these remote capabilities to suit their convenience. To be clear, I am not advocating for anyone to put themselves in danger or to disregard government directives and understand fully there are schools and daycares closing left and right, which is a real challenge. But you better get creative about how you’re going to show up for your people and do not ask anything of your team that you are not willing to roll your sleeves up and do yourself. In our office, we are sanitizing surfaces, door knobs, light switches, etc. every three hours. You better believe I am here and on that rotation as the owner of the business. I will not ask more of my people than I am willing to sacrifice myself.
We love a good social justice cause. Your people are your cause right now. When it comes to social justice and social enterprising, our generation shines. Giving back to the greater good is right in our wheelhouse and makes our big millennial hearts sing. I believe the best thing you can do right now is turn all that caring towards your team and your business. Of course, support local organizations feeding kids while they’re off school, check in on your neighbors, and keep your eyes open for opportunities for your business to shine a light in the world, but do not forget about your people or the basic premise that if your business does not succeed, you and your team will suffer greatly. Do not assume they are managing their anxiety well. Do not assume they are financially stable. Do not assume they are not concerned for aging parents. This. Is. Your. Cause. How you respond will set the trajectory for their trust in you as their leader from this point forward.
Make the tough decisions. You are going to have to make very difficult choices in this season. You may have to let people go. You may have to decide the business cannot pay employees. You may have to take on loans, make tough decisions about which bills to pay, and hold people accountable when they are not in the office. Make the decisions. Look to generations who came before for you for wisdom and guidance and respect; they have been through very challenging times but you must make the call. Those on your team, above you and below you, are looking to you to make these decisions and if you cannot or do not you will not be respected as a leader going forward. And, can we have some “real talk” here? Why should they? Step up. While people will come alongside you in this time, do not back down and have others make the tough calls.
Bring your kids along for the ride. Many of us have young children at home. Let them see, within reason, that this is tough season. Teach them about hard work. Explain why you are up late and seem stressed or tired. It should be because you are working on overload to try to take care of the people whose livelihood depends on it. Explain the value of money and how businesses work and why they are important to families who need to earn a living. I remember as a kid my amazing mom getting dressed in a suit and heading off to work every day and I thought she was so cool and what she did was really, really important. I think if she had the opportunity to bring me into how she managed difficult times for her team, I would not have forgotten that lesson. Our kids are watching. How we respond in crisis will be how they think they should respond. Let it be a message of resilience, work ethic, creativity, and leadership.
There are no participation trophies coming your way this time. Let’s turn the stereotype on its head. Earn it or you won’t receive it.
Sarah joined the firm in 2010 and handles a variety of commercial litigation, employment and transactional matters. She has experience litigating in state and federal courts, and before administrative agencies and regulatory bodies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Ohio Civil Rights Commission and the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board. She is a champion of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession and is an active committee member with both Women for Economic and Leadership Development (“WELD”) and the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms (“NAMWOLF”).