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Last week, at the Inc. Magazine and Winning Workplaces Leadership Conference in Denver, I listened to Marcus Buckingham talk about the difference between leaders and managers. If you've ever heard Buckingham speak or read his books, you know that he's very big on the power of discovering and then developing your strengths.  Focusing on weaknesses as 'opportunities for growth' is a lot like telling Michael Jordan he ought to learn how to pitch a no hitter. A manager's job, says Buckingham, is to know the individual strengths of his or her employees and help them turn those strengths into performance.  Sure, they can also work on their weaknesses, but that's not how you'll ever get the most out of your staff. 

'You would expect GenY to be very strengths-focused,' said Buckingham at one point. 'But they're actually more focused on weaknesses.'  He referred to a survey showing that 69% of GenY respondents said they thought fixing their weaknesses would make them more successful than building upon their strengths.  He then went on to describe them as 'the teacup generation because they're so fragile – if you drop them, they break.'  To which I respectfully respond:  not so fast, sir!  Buckingham has made the teacup comment before (check out this video), along with other disparaging comments about GenY.  He's a GenXer, so this doesn't surprise me much (why there's so much enmity between these generations is beyond me, but I see it all the time).

First, let me address the 'weaknesses' issue. Of course GenY thinks that fixing their weaknesses will make them more successful because that's the message they've been given their entire lives. Remember, this is a very achievement-oriented generation that grew up with mandated standardized testing starting in the third grade. I personally despise the emphasis on testing, but schools have little choice in the matter and the whole point is to identify and correct weaknesses. It starts before kids are barely able to read and continues all through high school, when competition for college admissions and obsession with filling in the gaps  ('weaknesses') in your resume often eclipses any interest in real learning. Thanks in part to George Bush's No Child Left Behind  (NCLB) initiative, the tutoring and test prep industry is booming, as is parental and student anxiety.

So if we expect GenY (and the generations to come) to focus on strengths, we need to start with how they're educated and evaluated. Let's not demean them for we've done to them. Instead, if you're an employer, know that you've got work to do. If you want to bring out the best in these kids, you need to send them clear messages about what you expect of them. Help them focus on what matters most in their jobs, give them some clear directions on how to get from A to B, and check in on their progress frequently. No, you won't need to hold their hands forever; you just need to help them recover from 12 years of public education.

So is GenY a fragile 'teacup generation?'  Absolutely not. GenYers may have been raised by 'helicopter' parents, but they also grew up in times of massive instability: Columbine; corporate layoffs that put parents in the unemployment line; 9-11; corporate scandals; two wars; the financial industry's meltdown; the recession. All of this has sent the message that the world is chaotic and that success demands resiliency. And I have to tell you that I see that resiliency every day in the young entrepreneurs I talk to and write about. The recession isn't beating them down, but it's giving them a reality check: they're learning how to operate with limited resources, to morph their companies as the markets shift; to be creative and flexible.  I've yet to meet a teacup.

So, I'm well aware that I may be seeing the best of the best in GenY, but I'm certainly not blind to their faults (please, kiddos, detach yourself from your iPhones, tuck in your shirts, learn how to write well, and stop calling me dude). But I do think they take a bum rap. A lot. What about you? Do you think GenY is a 'teacup generation?'

Last updated: Nov 5, 2010

DONNA FENN is the author of Upstarts! How Gen-Y Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success, an exploration of the ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.
@donnafenn




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