As a manager and team leader, you’ve been very successful in your career and you know what has worked for you. In a given situation, you’ve seen the scenario play out two-dozen times and you know that your way works to approach a given situation. You are managing a group of Millennials and Gen Z who are approaching this problem for the first time and surprise, surprise - you aren’t seeing eye to eye with them. Maybe your way has been disrupted by new thinking or new technology. Maybe they don’t have the same experience that you do, and they simply cannot see why your way is the best or why it will work. In any event, for the team to execute effectively, you all need to be on the same page, but how do you get there?
This article will detail my experience coaching Millennials and Generation Z and the lessons I’ve learned that are transferrable to the business world. I believe that much of the material that has been written about the subject is general in nature and this article will provide specific situations from my experience along with what I learned at the time.
When I was growing up in the 1980’s and asked an adult a question that they didn’t want to answer, I often would be told “because I said so.” This answer left me frustrated and most of the time it meant the conversation was over. As the 1980s rolled into the 1990s and the early 2000s, I remember continuing to get the response from teachers, professors,coaches, and any number of other people in a position of authority - then at some point “because I told you so” just stopped. Sometime between the early-2000’s and now, it seemingly no longer became acceptable.
Fast forward to today, after retiring from a 20-year playing career, I am the third-year volunteer head coach of the Temple University Men’s Club Volleyball team. The players are all younger millennials and older members of Gen Z. I was born in 1981 making me an older millennial. Growing up I was told that sports are important because they teach life lessons. I find this to be true and believe that managing a sports team, a work team, or any group of people uses similar and transferrable skills. This article will detail what I have learned so far about successfully managing today’s young people through coaching a team sport and how these lessons can potentially be transferred to the business world and beyond.
In a way, Volleyball is the ultimate team sport. Unlike Basketball where one-star player can always handle the ball and take control of a game offensively or Baseball where a dominant pitcher can shut down another team’s offense, Volleyball (due to its rules) forces a team to work together to achieve a common goal. The basic rules are that each team can touch the ball three times before it goes over the net and if the ball hits the ground on your side, the other team gets a point. Typically, this leads to three different players contacting the ball on every possession and the other players on the court need to react and play their role based on the situation. It takes coordination and awareness to do correctly and if one player is out of position or makes a mistake, the rest of the team suffers.
I’ve been involved with the team for the past four years - split between being a player and then later, as coach. Before I became the coach, the position had been vacant for the better part of two decades. My first year as a player, we finished around 42nd in the country. Three years ago, we finished tied for 9th - then tied for 5th - and this year we finished tied for 3rd. The credit all goes to the team for putting in the work and next year we hope to contend for a National Title.
When I first arrived, many of the things that the team did made little sense to me. I won’t go into the technical details but good & bad teams both do certain things and if Temple wanted to be good, there would need to be changes. As the new guy, I hadn’t earned the respect or trust of the team to change things - or even provide input towards making a change. At first, I led by example by doing all the things that I would ask the rest of the team to do. After the team saw me performing in a certain way, they began to trust me, and I earned the right to provide input.
At first, I started slowly - pulling aside team leaders and bouncing ideas off them in private. If they thought it was a good idea, I asked them to individually reinforce or address the team as if it was their idea. I didn’t care who would receive the credit, I just wanted the team to do better - because winning is more fun than losing. As the “tips” that I was feeding to team leaders made it out to the team, I saw improvement but not as much as I would have liked. Slowly, the team became used to the idea of hearing my ideas and saw that what I was suggesting was working better than what they were previously doing. That year, we finished 9th in the country and by the last days of the National Tournament, the team put me in a position to be the defacto bench coach. Shortly after we returned from the tournament, the President of the team asked me to become the Head Coach for the next season and I accepted. Going from a peer to a coach/manager was a significant adjustment. The incoming class of players saw me as their coach but several returning upper-classmen saw me as something else. In order to get everyone bought in to what I was doing, I quickly learned that I would need the buy-in of team leaders - so that was my initial focus.
Shifting back to a business issue you’ve had to solve; you probably had an idea of the best way to solve the issue. Years of trial and error have caused you to come to a conclusion and you are confident that your way will undoubtedly work. As mentioned earlier, your team that needs to execute in order to have a successful outcome does not have the same experiences and skill sets that you do so there’s a chance that they will not be able to do things the way you need them done. Is it better to force them to learn how to complete the task your perfect way or is it “good enough” to allow them to create a hybrid method using your theory and their capabilities?
I learned early in my coaching career that having everyone on the team on the same page was more important than everyone trying to do things perfectly. Michael Porter in his famous 1996 essay, “What is Strategy?” called this concept “Strategic Fit” and I believe that fit is exceedingly important in any strategy - and its importance is magnified when trying to implement change. I have always seen better results when 100% of the team doing something 50% “perfect” than when 50% of the team doing something 100% the way I wanted. The reason for this is that when everyone is aligned, it creates harmony and builds morale. When half of the team is doing one thing and the other half is doing something else, it creates uncertainty, frustration, and chaos. In this era of instant gratification, I believe that young people aren’t as accustomed to failure as in generations past, and that in general they take it harder than I did when I was a developing player.
When there is uncertainty, people question leadership and lose focus on their goal. Once you have everyone on the team aligned and working together to complete the task, you can work together as a team and work at an appropriate pace to improve.
I know of three ways to create buy in and they are:
Dictating, usually followed up with threats. “If you don’t do this, that will happen.” This is effective in a situation where action must be taken immediately. It can be also used as a last resort if the other two methods have failed or when you are struggling with buy-in and compromise isn’t an option. When coaching young people, I’ve tried to avoid dictating until its completely necessary because it tends to have the least amount of long-term effectiveness and breeds the most resentment. We have all had a boss that only dictates and almost none of us wanted to be this person when we grew up. This is the boss that everyone says yes to just to get them to stop talking “at” you but when they leave the room people roll their eyes or talk about them behind their back. My goal as a coach/mentor/manager is to help get all my teams to a place where I no longer need to dictate and threaten. Once everyone has bought in and is on the same page, dictating no longer becomes necessary. During the change management process, a good coach knows that dictating is a card that should be played rarely in those few situations that warrant playing it. The questions I always ask myself before going in this direction: “Is there another way?” If there is, I always try that way first.
An example of this: One of the members of my team broke the rules in a way that negatively impacted another team financially. Without getting into too much detail, when the situation came to my attention, I told (dictated to) the team that we were going to come clean and make the other team whole. While this decision wasn’t popular, I made the decision because it was the right thing to do and there was no room to compromise.
Allowing the team to come up with the own solution should be done whenever possible because it allows the team to feel empowered and it increases morale. From my experience, the best opportunity to allow the team to come up with their own solution is for situations that will have a low impact. On our team, decision like the design of the uniforms, drafting teams for scrimmages, driving routes to get to away games, etc. are made by the team because in the scheme of things, these decisions have a low impact on performance and achieving our overall goals. Good managers need to be careful not to give their team too much slack with making their own decisions - because if the team is making too many decisions without you, why do they need you there? Additionally, when the team decides on their own, they don’t have the benefit of your experience or input when formulating a solution. Before choosing this method, think about the possible impact of the decision and if there’s a good chance it will be minimal or low, consider allowing the team to make the decision without you.
Collaborating and coming up with a plan together: this is my go-to method for achieving buy-in. While it takes significantly more time than dictating and the team may not come to your “perfect way” of doing something, it has the benefits of empowering the team while allowing them to benefit from your experience. If you start with this method and reach an impasse, you can always pivot to one of the other two methods to come to decision. Typically, this method takes the most amount of time in change management because the team needs to build up their knowledge base by doing a task and then learning through trial and error. If you have a long enough timeline, I believe that the downside is far outweighed by the upside of collaboration. It’s the most likely method to result in 100% participation and it builds a positive culture of trust and communication rather than a negative culture of “It’s my way or the highway.”
An example of this: When working in any team environment communication is key to being successful. One area where my team knows they need to improve is in on-court communication. While I suggested/dictated to the team that we needed to work on this specific area, I collaborated with them on what our communication would be. I shared with the team how my previous teams have communicated in the past. The current team didn’t agree on specific terms, so we collaborated to come up with phrases that the current team would be comfortable using. To me the impactful area in this case is that the team simply communicates effectively, and everyone uses the same terms, so we all understand the communication. Whether they call something 4, 1+3, or 2+2 doesn’t matter - so long as everyone uses the same term and they are using it at the appropriate time.
While change management and creating buy-in with today’s young people isn’t impossible, generational differences have changed the landscape of coaching and managing. Methods that were effective in the past with previous generations can cause resentment and may have the opposite of your desired effect. In order to gain buy-in, be willing to do what you ask your team to do (at least initially). When formulating a plan to make specific changes, think about the impact of the change along with the possible positive and negative consequences of selecting a specific methodology and then choose the best approach to have the greatest perceived impact.