MRM Talking With: Bruce Tulgan of RainmakerThinking, Inc.

by MRM Staff 11 Min Read

Bruce Tulgan feels he's had "a front-row seat to study workplace dynamics." The adviser to business leaders, best-selling author, keynote speaker and seminar leader, is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company.

Tulgan says: "Managers’ successes thrill me. Their failures break my heart.  Their challenges are my challenges." The Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine columnist discusses managing Millennials,  the changing workplace and, of course, restaurant management in this edition of Talking With.

So our readers can gain more insights from Tulgan, MRM is holding a giveaway for his book, "Not Everyone Gets A Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials." To enter, click here.

Are today’s Millennials really any different than previous generations? If so, in what ways?

The short answer is that, of course, every generation has things in common with previous generation and every generation is different in its own ways.  Everybody of every generation goes through the natural developmental life stages (childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, middle adulthood, latter adulthood, old age).  And every generation is shaped by the accidents of history that intersect with those life stages. 

One generational researcher, Morris Massey, made famous a simple framework: “What you are is where you were when.”  For example, Millennials were very young when 9/11 happened, so that affected them much differently from those who were 30, 40, 50, 60 when it happened.

For another example, the ubiquity of hand-held super-computers is affecting all of us, but Millennials learned how to think, learn and communicate with those hand-held devices because they were very young when the technology became common.  And so on.

Bruce Tulgan

Since 1993, my firm, RainmakerThinking, has been tracking generational change in the workplace and its impact on organizations, especially the impact on supervisory relationships.

Of course, the older more experienced people are always more or less annoyed by the attitudes and behavior of each successive new young generation. New young employees are, by definition, always younger and less experienced and, therefore, lacking in the corresponding maturity and patience.  As they step into the adult world with youthful energy and enthusiasm, young workers often clash with their older colleagues. That’s always part of the story.

Millennials --- especially the second wave Millennials born 1990-2000 --- just happen to be the generation to come of age during today’s era of profound change and uncertainty driven by a confluence of epic historical forces:

  • Globalization
  • Constantly advancing technology
  • The painfully slow death of the myth of job security
  • The never-ending ever-expanding information fire-hose
  • The accelerating pace of everything
  • Increasing human diversity in every dimension.

In some ways, Millennials are just the next chapter in a story we are all living through together. In another sense, they represent a whole new breed of worker.

Advances in information technology have made them the first generation of true ‘digital natives.’ They learned to think, learn and communicate in an environment defined by wireless internet ubiquity, wholesale technology integration, infinite content, and immediacy. They are totally plugged in --- through social media, search engines and instant messaging --- to each other as well as anyone and everyone, and an infinite array of answers to any question at any time.

For the Millennials, customization is the Holy Grail, and it has always been right there within their grasp.

For the Millennials, customization is the Holy Grail, and it has always been right there within their grasp. From the first day, they arrive in the workplace, they are scrambling to keep their options open, leverage their uniqueness for all its potential value, and wrap a customized career around the customized life they are trying to build.

Millennials don’t look at a large, established organization and think, “I wonder where I’ll fit in your complex picture.” Rather, they look at an employer and think, “I wonder where you will fit in my life story.” Every step of the way, Millennials want to find a work situation they can fit into the kind of life they are building for themselves. Because they grew up overly supervised, coached, and constantly rewarded by their parents, Millennials will never be content to labor quietly and obediently in a sink-or-swim environment. They are less likely to trust the “system” or the organization to take care of them over time and thus less likely to make immediate sacrifices in exchange for promises of long-term rewards. In fact, the Millennials’ career path will be a long series of short-term and transactional employment relationships: “What do you want from me? What do you have to offer in return now and for the foreseeable future? I’ll stay here as long as it’s working out for both of us.”

They have very high expectations, first for themselves, but also for their employers. And they have the highest expectations for their immediate bosses. And yet they are more likely to disagree openly with employers’ missions, policies, and decisions and challenge employment conditions and established reward systems. They are less obedient to employers’ rules and supervisors’ instructions. They are less likely to heed organizational chart authority. After all, they had incredibly close relationships with their previous authoritative role models, their parents, who treated them as equals. Instead, Millennials respect transactional authority: control of resources, control of rewards, and control of work conditions. Because they look to their immediate supervisors to meet their basic needs and expectations, they freely make demands of them.

Precisely because Millennials seem to both disregard authority figures and at the same time demand a great deal of them, leaders and managers often find Millennials maddening and difficult to manage. Meanwhile, the truth, of course, is more complicated.  Millennials have been much analyzed but, I believe, largely misunderstood.

How does restaurant management differ from other industries?

Every industry is unique in its own ways and yet not always as different as they think.

Restaurants have cycles that align with mealtimes, just as every business has “busy times.” 

Restaurants are in the retail/entertainment business, serving a discretionary product/service that might be considered a luxury, despite the fact that they deal in the basic sustenance of life (food and beverage).

Restaurants, dealing with food, must observe a lot of health and safety requirements, just as most businesses do, at least somewhat.

Restaurants are like small factories, with a complex array of systems and processes for advertising/marketing/pr, sales, customer service, and accounting; invention, preparation, production, delivery; equipment maintenance and operation; cleaning; location management; and personnel. 

Restaurants have a high percentage of young, inexperienced, and also part-time and temporary employees; and, also, cadres of people who grow up in the industry and never leave.

There is creative work, difficult physical labor (cooking, cleaning, waiting tables, etc), management work, customer-service work, and also lot of grunt work; both in the back-of-the-house and in the front-of-the-house.

Why is communication breakdown often at the core of management issues?

The fundamental work of leading/managing is communication. 

High-structure, high-substance communication between managers and their direct-reports is necessary to teach people what to do and how to do it, to standardize best practices, to set priorities, to make expectations clear, to give regular meaningful candid feedback, to hold people accountable, to trouble-shoot and problem-solve, and to offer appreciation, recognition, and credit where credit is due.  Good communication is also necessary for employees to provide important information from the front-lines; to seek guidance, direction, support, and coaching. 

We’ve asked hundreds of thousands of people, “What is the one improvement you’d like to make in your workplace?”  The most common response, by far, is “better communication.”

I always marvel at this because in most workplaces there is an awful lot of communication. In most workplaces nowadays, there are way too many emails, mediocre meetings, and lots of touching base, checking in, catching up, and just plain shooting the breeze. There’s lots of communication in today’s workplace. It’s just mostly low-structure and low-substance. And so it’s not accomplishing very much. That’s why people crave “better” communication.

When communication is not well-structured and substantive and accurate, expectations are not clear, people don’t know when they are doing things wrong (or right for that matter), and so unnecessary problems occur, problems get out of control that could have been solved easily, resources are not well planned and so they are sometimes squandered.

When did the “everyone gets a trophy” attitude become pervasive and what impacts do you feel it has, economically and socially?

By the 1970s, first-wave Boomer parents were busy awakening their consciousness and tended to be more hands-off as a rule ---due in part to rising divorce rates, more dual working parent households, and a general increasing permissiveness--- leading to the cliché about GenXers being a generation of under-supervised “latchkey kids.”  But the major sea change came in the mid to late 1980s, led by second-wave Boomer parents. All of a sudden, the norms of parenting shifted sharply toward safety and self-esteem --- constant supervision and lots of trophies. Ever since, it seems, we’ve barely left our children alone for even a minute!  What began as the “self-esteem” based parenting was morphing by the 1990s into the Gen-X led “helicopter-parenting.”

By the early 2000s, the helicopter-parenting trend reached a new apex.  Millennials have been insulated and scheduled and supported to a degree that no children ever have been before.  Remember, pre-Boomer parenting was, in large part, focused on teaching children humility, diligence, grit, gratitude and grace – what was always simply known as “building character” has become so out of the norm that it is resurfacing now in the form of a “movement” in educational circles. 

Relationship boundaries have been blurred for Millennials because they’ve grown accustomed to being treated almost as customers/users of services and products provided by institutions and authority figures.  Parents and their parenting-posses (relatives, friends, teachers, coaches, counselors, doctors, and vendors in every realm) are mobilized to supervise and support the every move of children, validate their differences, excuse (or medicate) their weaknesses, and set them up with every material advantage possible. In China, where there are so many only-children due to the longstanding “single child policy,” a similar trend in child-rearing has yielded a phenomenon referred to by many there as “Little Emperor Syndrome.”

Why are Millennials so confident and self-possessed, even in the face of all this uncertainty? One reason is surely that they grew up in and after the Decade of the Child. Gen Xers were the great unsupervised generation (we made the latchkey into a metaphor). But Millennials are the great over-supervised generation.

Every step of the way, Millennials’ parents have guided, directed, supported, coached, and protected them. Millennials have been respected, nurtured, scheduled, measured, discussed, diagnosed, medicated, programmed, accommodated, included, awarded, and rewarded as long as they can remember. Their parents, determined to create a generation of superchildren, perhaps accelerated their childhood. On one hand, kids grow up so fast today (I often say that twelve is the new nineteen); on the other, they seem to stay tightly moored to their parents throughout their twenties. Their early precociousness, in fact, turns into a long-lasting sophomorism. Many psychologists have observed that Millennials act like highly precocious late adolescents well into adulthood. (I often say that thirty is the new twenty.)

What do you consider the fundamentals to be?

For many years, in the research we conduct before, during, and after our management seminars, we have studied what the very best managers actually do that is different from the others. I’m talking about the very best managers: Managers whose employees consistently deliver the highest productivity and quality; with high retention of high performers and high turnover among low performers; with the best business outcomes and high morale and team spirit; whose direct-reports are most likely to describe the manager as “one of the best managers I’ve ever had.” What is the common denominator among those managers? An abiding commitment to the fundamentals – relentless high-quality communication. Consistently engaging every direct-report in an ongoing highly-structured content-rich one-on-one dialogue about the work that needs to be done by that person. Things go much better when managers consistently make expectations clear and provide candid feedback for every individual every step of the way. Use team meetings only for what team meetings are good for – and make the most of them.

When managers build and maintain high-quality one-on-one dialogues with their direct-reports, they almost always increase employee performance and morale, increase retention of high performers and turnover among low performers, and achieve significant measurable improvements in business-outcomes. 

What are the best ways to resolve generational management issues?

What one person needs from you is likely to be very different from another; what you need from one person is likely to be very different from another.

First, the key is to remember that learning about generational difference serves best when it is used to raise awareness.  Understanding diversity, of any kind, is productive when it helps people understand better where different people are coming from and where they are going; how they might be thinking and why.  That kind of understanding helps people to be more tolerant and appreciative and respectful of differences.

Second, never try to use any diversity lens as a simple short-hand that will tell you how to manage people of a certain background or profile.  That’s too simplistic!  You don’t want to ask a person for his/her driver’s license, figure out what year he/she was born, and then turn to your cheat sheet for “how to manage Millennials” or “how to manage Boomers” or anyone else.  Imagine trying to do that with any other diversity lens. 

Third, what you should learn from looking through almost any diversity lens, if nothing else, is that “one size fits all” doesn’t work anymore.  The best medicine for resolving any management issues, it turns out, is to take it one person at a time.  Yes, everybody needs good clear high-structure high-substance communication --- guidance, direction, support and coaching.  But why you need to communicate with one person may be very different from why you need to communicate with another; what you need to communicate about may be very different, one person from another; that’s also true of how you communicate; and where and when you communicate.  Everybody is different.  What one person needs from you is likely to be very different from another; what you need from one person is likely to be very different from another.

One person at a time, one day at a time.  That’s the approach we teach.

What does “Rainmaker Thinking” mean to you?

Well, there are a number of stories about how that name came about for our business.  The truth is that, when I founded the company, back in 1993, I was still working as a lawyer at a Wall Street firm.  In that world, a “rainmaker” is someone who brings in business.  (That comes, I guess, from the old-fashioned “rainmakers” who would travel around offering to farm communities to “make it rain” in the midst of droughts.)  So I was familiar with the term from my lawyer days.  And the original name of my company was actually “Rainmaker Information Analysis & Strategic Consulting,” but once the internet became a thing, we needed a URL and that name was just too long.  When it came down to it, we thought about what we really do.  Yes we gather a lot of data.  But the real value we add is from our interpretation of the data, the analysis, and the insights.  “Thinking” seemed to capture it pretty well. And RainmakerThinking was pretty catchy, trademark-able, and worked as a URL.  

What do you expect the workplace of the future to look like?

Most organizations in just about every industry have been scrambling since the early 1990s to adjust to a new normal.  The workplace of the past was based on one-size-fits-all long-term hierarchical employment relationships in which employees worked full-time, on-site, uninterrupted, and exclusively for one employer in exchange for job security and long-term vesting rewards.  The workplace of the future will revolve around short-term transactional employment relationships in an environment of constant change and uncertainty driven by globalization, technology, the information tidal wave, diversity, and wild market fluctuations. 

The successful workplace of the very near future will continue to cut waste to the bone, improve efficiency, implement new technologies to streamline operations, drive employee productivity, and try to get more and more work out of fewer and fewer people. Meanwhile, workplaces will be forced to pay high-premiums with lush benefits and lavish work-conditions for the most in-demand talent --- dream jobs for superstars.

Yes, those superstars may be more apt to come and go as they please (and maybe even bring their dogs).  But they will also be under a lot of pressure to do lots of valuable work very well, very fast, with a great attitude – to deliver on-time high-quality results with very few errors or defects.  When they fail to deliver, they won’t get paid.

The workplace of the very near future will still need to have a core group of critical long-term stake-holders --- ie, partnership or something like it. But those core groups will get smaller and smaller.

Meanwhile, workplaces will need to have many more fluid/flexible ways to employ people and leverage talent – full-time, part-time, flex-time, on-site, off-site, telecommuting; as consultants, temps, vendors, franchisors, franchisees.  And customization will not be for superstars alone. The successful workplace will have as many different career paths as they have people.

What does a “management guru” do?

I hesitate to use the term.  But it certainly has been applied to me more than once, so I guess I should own it.

Back in 1993, I started investigating the work attitudes of Generation X (born 1965–1977), those of my own generation who were then just entering the workforce. Companies started inviting me to speak at their conferences, train their managers, observe their operations, interview their leaders, conduct focus groups with their employees. At first, I was focused exclusively on generational issues. I’d go into a company, interview their young employees, and then hold a seminar with the leaders and managers to share what the young employees had to say.

Throughout the 1990s, as the tech boom turned into the dot-com boom, the GenX mind-set was spreading. And it was spreading not only to the next generation of young workers (the First Wave Millennials born 1978-89) and then the next (the Second Wave Millennials born 1990-2000).  Over time, the mind-set that started out being all about the young people in the workplace gradually became the mainstream employee attitude. The fact that Generation Xers and then the Millennials had been in the vanguard of this shift was simply an accident of history. Something much larger was happening. The traditional long-term hierarchical employer-employee bond was morphing into a short-term transactional relationship.

As a result, since the mid-1990s, I’ve had a front-row seat from which to study workplace dynamics. I’ve spent most of my time interviewing and training managers at all levels; now hundreds of thousands; from CEOs to frontline supervisors, in just about every industry—retail, health care, research, finance, aerospace, software, manufacturing, the public sector, even nonprofits, you name it. Managers’ successes thrill me. Their failures break my heart.  Their challenges are my challenges.

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