Canadian Underwriter

Tricks for managing the twenty-something crowd

April 15, 2016   by Sara Tatelman

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I’m a lactose-intolerant pescetarian. My Starbucks order is a grande soy Tazo chai. My Macbook’s name is Murdoch. I applied for seventy-five jobs before I got this one… and I can show you the spreadsheet.

Now, if you’re a boss out there, you might not understand me and my generation. But you know you want to hire one of us. And sell us. And that our age market is going to be both crucial to your business in terms of your work force and your customer base. If you’re the boss, you might look at me as if I’m Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (and yes, my editor came up with that reference; that movie’s way before my time). And your anxious Millennial employee might look at you as if you’re J.K. Simmons screaming in Whiplash.

“They want to touch base with you more frequently, like some four or five times a day at least,” says a certain experienced mature professional—oh, let’s call him Broker T. While he appreciates Millennials’ energy and ideas, “it can be overwhelming, a gale-force wind at times, as far as the amount of interaction and enthusiasm and all that.”

But when you have no background knowledge of insurance, it “can feel overwhelming to come into a domain where there’s such entrenched knowledge and expertise,” says Michael Howe, senior vice president of product management at Applied Systems.

Alina Didyk, a 22-year-old surety underwriter at Trisura, agrees. Insurance knowledge “doesn’t come overnight, you don’t learn it in school. The only way you can learn it is through work. And the only way you can get that experience is if your managers and your co-workers give you that chance to learn.… It really involves getting engaged and wanting to be in the business.”

So your Millennial needs proper care and feeding—kind of like a Tamagotchi. “As opposed to just sitting and hearing about risks or what it’s like to actually visit a broker, we find it best to actually take them out of the office and go into the broker’s office,” says Jodie Kaufman Davis, Director of Burns & Wilcox Canada. Hmmm, kind of like a field trip.

Burns & Wilcox, however, must know what it’s doing; they have about 60 employees in their Canadian division, and a third of them are Millennials. The company pays for employees to get their insur – ance designations, but there’s still a lot of on-the-job learning, and many questions. So many questions… which can take up valuable time.

We’re taking a selfie as we write this

For Broker T, one issue is keeping his younger employees focused during their frequent meetings. “These guys are interested in a lot of different things and they get distracted easily.… You say, ‘Look, here’s what I need done this week. I need you to tell me where you are on this project and I want to measure this and that this week and … I need to see progression that’s linear.’” Which brings us to another problem. Once Millennials get the hang of their job, they want to see the money. Remember the Tamagotchi? The damn thing just keeps needing to be fed.

“I find they’re very impatient,” says Broker T. “…They’re willing to try new things and I love that, but that also comes with the expectations that okay, now you’re going to pay me more, you’re going to promote me quicker.”

Then again, Millennials can show the same strong motivation to sell and do well as previous generations. They’ve got hustle, too. “It can work well with that kind of attitude,” says 22-year-old Rachel Johnston, a former broker at RDA, “because you drive to get more clients and succeed… I didn’t find anybody was trying to jump above their pay grade or anything like that but it was all pretty tame.”

But Broker T still isn’t quite sold. In fact, he can give an example where he still feels quite had. “Just before Christmas, … a Millennial quit on me after I invested at least a year and a half, almost two years of time in them. I’d asked them to modify their job or at least accelerate their success, which was kind of stalling. This person was so stubborn and didn’t want to do that, and rather than trying to come to a compromise and find a solution, they just said if that’s the way it’s going to be, no. And just walked out. I couldn’t believe it.”

That sounds like an extreme example. One slacker-quitter doesn’t represent my age group and our ambitions. “We want to be successful,” says Otis Wong, who can see both sides, since he’s a 25-year-old recruiter for insurance companies at DGA Inc. “…We want a condo by the age of 28, we want to own our own cars, and not an old Honda… And we believe that the fact we graduated from a post-secondary [institution], and we’re not working at Tim Horton’s, [means] we deserve more.”
True, perhaps, but I worked four unpaid internships before my current position, and many of my friends from my graduating year are either in community college to get a new skill set or are working minimum wage jobs… like at Tim Horton’s. Older managers can sometimes forget that Millennials are coming into a very different workforce than they did. Many insurance companies, such as Burns & Wilcox, require new brokers and underwriters to have a university degree. With the average student debt nearing $25,000 and the cost of living always going up, what comes across as entitlement may simply be financial desperation.

“If you’ve hired a recent grad, 80 percent of their life has been structured in an academic environment, which means that they would have had feedback on showing up every day,” says David Singh, author of Hitting Stryde and one of the speakers at Top Broker Summit last year. “They would have got a gold star for that.” As students, we could go to our professors and negotiate for higher grades; you can’t use the same grade-grubbing tactics to get yourself a raise. Singh says, “I think that’s a bit of a culture shock at times.”

Snapchat me your instructions

Millennials have grown up online and are used to instant gratification, whether that’s streaming a movie in bed or paying bills on a smartphone. To combat that impatience in the workplace, Otis Wong recommends creating specific, quantifiable deadlines for younger workers.

“The word ‘eventually’ is so subjective,” says Otis. “And the way to manage Millennials is, I would say, setting milestone goals… If in six months you can hit this target, I’ll sponsor your education or in a year, you hit this target, you’ll get a promotion.”

As a Millennial himself, Otis appreciates his supervisors taking the time to grab coffee with him if he’s having a rough day. “When a mentor invests in a person, they feel obligated, in a way, to not let them down.… When someone puts in the time to support you, you’re going to show them it’s not wasted.” A good mentor, he says, is “someone you can talk through your problems with,… getting to the root cause of your performance.”

“[My manager] teaches me enough to get background knowledge and then she’ll let me try things for myself, make mistakes in order to learn,” says Alina Didyk. “… If you don’t get that trust with your manager, you can’t take on independent responsibilities and you can’t really learn.”

So, okay. You want Millennials. Or maybe you just want Millennials’ mad tweeting skills. RDA hired 10 of them, most of them straight out of school, for the “My Generation” project, designed to sell insurance to 23-to-30-year-olds. “They wanted to re-envision how you do insurance,” says Rachel Johnston, the former broker. “They wanted people fresh out of university who weren’t set in the ways of all the insurance brokerages [to] sort of come in and use Facebook and social media and Twitter and be able to text their clients. It was kind of fun and cool.”

Except Rachel was not having a fun and cool time. “I did not love sales. I’d never done sales before… We actually had to go out and find clients. It wasn’t just people who came in and said ‘Hey, I want insurance,’ and selling to them. I feel that, I would have been better at. But to actually go out and say, ‘Hey you should buy insurance from me.’ I prefer to let people do their own thing, make their own decisions.”

She was thinking of quitting. Fortunately, a client service rep noticed she was miserable and told her she was different from when she started in her position: “…You were excited and happy and vibrant”— but Rachel had totally lost that. The rep advised her to have a candid talk with her supervisors, which she did, and now Rachel is much happier in a project management-based role.

So if you’re the boss, what do you do if, despite all your mentorship and midnight Facebook chats and bonding over beer pong, your Millennial is still a dud. Can’t you just send up a break-up tweet? Uhhh… no.

“Give the person options like they did with me,” says Rachel. “Say, ‘If you are happy doing this, we’ll give you more time. But if you don’t see yourself doing this in the long run, maybe you should consider something else.’”

Okay, suppose a lateral move doesn’t work. At Broker T’s firm, Millennials are fired in the same way as everyone else, and Michael Howe of Applied Systems agrees. “I wouldn’t deal with them much different than I would any grown-up. There’s a limit to assuming people of the Millennial generation are somehow fundamentally different or from some other planet.”

Many insurance companies Otis works with, however, do anything possible to avoid firing younger workers. “People are out of school, they have no experience, nothing with the real world. A lot of leaders nowadays say that if their employees aren’t doing well, it’s them who have failed.”

Instead, says Otis, companies should try to find the root cause of an employee’s poor performance, whether that’s not understanding assignments, comparing duties and attitudes with a more experienced employee who might have a different way of working, or even personal problems, like student debt, that are distracting them at work. “The key is to show there is more a concern than a frustration.”

And maybe you can learn their Starbucks order.
Copyright 2015 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the March 2015 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine

This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.