Interview with Kevin Burns, Attitude Adjuster (Part 1)

How many people do you know use “Attitude Adjuster” as a business title? Kevin Burns does. He specializes in Corporate Personal Development, helping companies develop their people in order to develop better and stronger organizations. His work is based on the premise “that business gets better when the people in the business get better.”

I met Kevin earlier this year when he graciously hosted me as part of my virtual book tour. Given the fascinating nature of his work, I asked him to share his thoughts on employee development.

Note: I’m posting this lengthy interview in two parts. Here Kevin addresses how attitude is related to employee engagement and the differences in employee engagement among the generations. My next post will continue with Kevin’s views on technical vs. soft skills training and what surprises him about corporate work-life.

QSM: How are Attitude and Employee Engagement related?

Kevin: Employee engagement IS an attitude. It’s an attitude based on values, morals and ethics instilled within the individual. If an employee was never taught or learned that their word is golden, then they will never really feel compelled to be fully engaged on the job nor will they ever go over and above the bare minimum in the performance of their duties.

If, however, one of the employee’s values is to keep their agreements and not allow excuses or justifiers to stand in their way, they will perform the job to the best of their abilities. That employee understands that by accepting the offer of employment in the first place, there is an expectation that they were hired as simply the best candidate and carry within them a belief that employment is a privilege and not a right.

People who have a strong set of values and a good sense of doing what is right will always perform their duties to their capacity and will engage themselves in their work.

It is for that reason that I believe that employee engagement is not necessarily something that can be taught directly but, in fact, can only be instilled by soft-skills training: personal development, personal leadership and values-based life strategies. To employ someone in a position where the values of the job are in conflict with the employee’s set of personal values is a waste of a company’s time and money. You can’t fully engage an employee doing a job that goes against everything they believe and expect the employee to give up their own personal and life-long held views of the world.

It is for this same reason that a company’s values need to be developed not by a bunch of expensive-suited executives, but instead must be a grass-roots effort from the people who actually do the work. If the employees develop the corporate values, the chances of the employees engaging themselves in the delivery of those same values are far greater. Corporate values cannot be thrust upon the employee. There has to be a buy-in.

Engagement comes from values. Any and all discussions to the contrary just don’t line up. Employee engagement is an attitude. Without a strong sense of self-worth, the value of the contribution by that same employee will be much less.

To attempt to fully engage an employee with low self-esteem or poor personal values would be futile to any organization. Develop the individual at the personal level and the engagement on the job naturally increases.

QSM: In your experience, what are the differences in engaging the different generations (i.e., Boomers, Gen X and Millennials)?

Kevin: My answer to this question may seem like a bunch of rash generalizations since one cannot lump all Baby Boomers together and claim that they all have the same value and skill sets nor can you expect that all Millennials have the same sets of values because they were simply born around the same time.

This whole concept of labeling workers based on the year they were born seems a little ridiculous to me.

However, with that being said, let me say this. As Baby Boomers, we (I am one) were taught the value of achievement. In other words, in high school, winning a gold medal in the 800 meter race was met with perhaps nothing more than a grunt from a father, whereas today, parents will throw a celebration for the child who comes home with a “participant” ribbon.

We have become a much softer society who perhaps tries to shelter our children from the realities of the world. This is the Oprah generation – the generation whose family watched Oprah just prior to supper and has a family discussion about what Oprah said today. These same kids, who are now grown, have entered the workforce with a much more pronounced spiritual side yet at the same time have had many of life’s rewards simply handed to them instead of having to earn it.

Boomers have earned everything they have; Millennials may have had most of it handed to them. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Millennials don’t have a strong values set. Some do and some don’t. Some Boomers work hard and some don’t. Some Gen X’ers have learned the value of applying themselves in their pursuit of excellence and some have not.

However, there is a skill set that the average Millennial possesses that is mind-boggling to the average Boomer: the propensity to use technology. For most Baby Boomers in the workforce today, remembering back to childhood and not seeing a TV remote control in the house until they were into their teens is not uncommon. Color cable television was a celebration as a huge leap forward into new technology. I could make a comment about “Pong,” “Pac-Man” and Commodore-64’s here but suffice it to say, we’ve come a long way in a short period of time.

The Millennials, however, have never had a day that didn’t involve the use of computers, cell phones or portable entertainment devices. For Boomers, a chat was something you did over coffee. For Millennials, chatting is something you do over Java.

Boomers grew up with the notion of finding a good job that they might become proficient at. Millennials have entered the workforce searching for a good fit as opposed to a good job. Each Millennial has a skill set that they hope to be able to use. They don’t work well for organizations that happen to have a position and are just looking for a body to fill it. Millennials want the job to fit them and not the other way around. And at the end of the day, Millennials will leave the work behind whereas Boomers will take it home to finish. Boomers hope to one day achieve a decent work-life balance. Millennials are looking for a life-work balance: life comes first and work comes second.

And when you hire a Millennial, you hire their entire network of friends. MSN, Twitter, SMS and other forms of electronic hand-holding by their friends will be turned on in the workplace. The Millennial may be at work for you, but they are still connected to their network. Ask them to shut it off during work hours and you will be faced with filling a vacancy in your organization.

Old school management does not work in today’s Millennial market. Give a poor performance review to a Millennial and that employee’s mother may call to ask why. Why should a job-performance review be any different than a parent-teacher meeting?

But how do you engage the opposite ends of the workforce spectrum? For Boomers, it’s a matter of laying out the project parameters clearly: time frame, responsibilities, expectations and hierarchy within the project. Then, step out of the way and let the Boomer get it done. Oh, and if you expect it will take the whole day to get it done, expect it to be worked on overnight.

As for a Millennial, ask for input on how the project should come together. Give them the responsibility to make the decisions, don’t make them climb a ladder of hierarchy to ask a question, loosen the time frame [e.g., with an approximate deadline instead of an exact one], and offer the opportunity to address key areas you’d like explored as well as anything they might feel is of value to the project. If you would expect the project to take all day, don’t. In fact, expect it in your email inbox completed by noon that same day.

As for praise, give a Boomer an “attaboy,” privately with a handshake and heartfelt thanks. As for Millennials, you guessed it, a very public celebration.

QSM: I’ll have more on Kevin’s interview coming up in my next post. In the meantime, check out Kevin’s blog.

One reply on “Interview with Kevin Burns, Attitude Adjuster (Part 1)”

Another great blog. I thought this one was particularly interesting in highlighting the differences in engaging the generations – something many companies don’t know how to handle and struggle with – especially with all of the Boomer managers.

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