For the first time in history, companies are experiencing four generations of people working side by side, where the age difference may be 50 years or more. You might find an employee who played a direct part in World War II on a team with one who knows nothing about the significance of the Berlin Wall to his teammate.

Just as customer markets are segmented, employee generations must be segmented if we are to truly understand their needs, wants, and motivations. For starters, we need to understand how all four generations – World War II, Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials – access, receive, and interpret information. We simply can’t approach them all in the same way.

Employees as Markets of One

Mass marketers know that mass communication misses its mark because it’s aimed at a target that no longer exists. The same is true for mass communication to employees. However, the best marketers believe in the “segment of one,” where each customer receives products that they believe are designed specifically for them. This thinking is needed more than ever in organizations trying to tap into the discretionary talent of their people – especially in a down economy where fear and doubt abound.

Consider how you interest customers: You find out what’s meaningful to them. This is your responsibility because relevance is always defined by the customer, not the provider. The only way to assure relevance is to see the business from the view of the “customer” and use that view to continually engage them. Relevance is at the heart of seeing employees as customers to maximize their engagement and ensure that strategy is translated into a meaningful language.

Leader as Translator

The first step in establishing relevance is communicating in a way people can understand. “People who work at a company should want to do a good job because they’re getting paid” is flawed thinking. Think of a leader as a translator of the strategic stories of the business.

In working with hundreds of companies, the two most frequent lines we’ve heard at the manager and frontline levels are “I don’t understand what I should do differently” and “I don’t know what I need to do to contribute.” In cases like these, a leader has failed to translate the strategy into appropriate future actions. No employees can execute a strategy that they don’t understand and that has no connection to them.

Bringing Relevance to Engagement

I once asked a teacher about her curriculum. “How do you decide what to teach?” I asked. After avoiding a straight answer, she admitted, “I teach what I like.” My follow-up questions were, “What if what you like isn’t what your students like? If you teach what you like, whose role is it to bring the relevance of learning to the students?” The teacher was unfazed by my belief that it was her role to uncover relevance rather than to expect the students to bring it. In the same way, the leader needs to focus on what is meaningful to employees.

So I put this to the test the next day with my son Blake, then in fifth grade.

“What did you learn in school today?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he replied. “The teacher showed us a movie.”

“So, Blake,” I said, “what are you curious about?”

He thought a moment and then said, “How does Caller ID know who’s calling?”

I said, “I’ll get back to you on that. What else?”

“Well, where does the color come from in bubble bath?”

“I don’t know. What else are you curious about?”

His next question blew me away. He said, “Well, Dad, as you go higher, there’s less oxygen, right? And when you make a fire, you need oxygen for the fire to burn. So if the sun is so high and there’s no oxygen up there, how come it burns so brightly?”

As I pondered this question, I couldn’t imagine a more engaging and enticing way to design a curriculum for any age than by starting with what students are curious about.

What does a story about a fifth-grader have to do with employees as customers? We need to ask people what they’re curious about, and what strategic questions they want answered. When leaders can capture people’s imagination, they engage employees in an entirely new, exciting way. But when leaders don’t uncover what people want to know, a huge opportunity to help them “get it” is lost – just as the opportunity is missed when what we create for our customers isn’t relevant to their needs and their questions.

October 10, 2008


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