Raji Ramanan is not just an experienced mentor, she’s also an HR executive with a particular knack for bridging communication gaps and fostering team trust. Ramanan is a team builder in every sense of the word. These skills have made Ramanan excellent at bridging language and cultural gaps, as well as generational gaps. Over the last two decades, she’s worked with teams in seventeen countries, across four continents.
Over that time Ramanan has seen low employee engagement plague organizations of all types and sizes. One piece of it, that many organizations seem resistant to truly addressing, is the fact that millennials simply don’t function well within a traditional organization’s structure, process and governance. Ramanan says one of the most frustrating misconceptions in the workplace right now is that millennials are lazy, irresponsible, or apathetic.
Most of the time, she says, they only appear that way because they’re not engaged in what they’re doing fully and the problem is not theirs. And the more organizations resist the changes this generation needs in order to be happy, the longer engagement will remain low and turnover will continue to be high. We spoke to Raji about what organizations can do to better appeal to millennials, how to build a successful mentorship, and how to make it through the most challenging time in your career.
What made you want to become a mentor?
I think it’s two-fold. One is that when you are coaching or mentoring someone you gain a new perspective on many things. You learn from the mentee. For example, I learned a lot about millennials in a recent mentorship. I also learned a lot about technical career pathing and technical career challenges because I was mentoring someone with a traditional IT background. In addition to learning about different organizations and career paths, I see development in terms of my own leadership and managerial skills. So that’s one reason.
The other reason is that I should be passing on my knowledge and experience. I’ve worked for many different organizations, all around the globe, so I like giving back by helping people who are facing career and work-life challenges.
What kinds of challenges have you worked through with your own mentors?
Earlier in my career I experienced the work-life balance dilemma, professional life vs. personal life. It’s a midlife career challenge that many women face just when we’re doing extremely well in our careers. On the family side, your children are growing up and needing more from you and at the same time, you are in a kind of midlife crisis in your relationship with your spouse. At that point, you are usually about 10 years into the marriage and that’s a challenging time. Meanwhile at work, you have more responsibility than ever before, so you’re expected to give more to your organization. Almost all of the aspects and dimensions of your life are expanding at once. Every part of your life is demanding more from you and it feels impossible to keep up.
I’ve found that the best way through this time is to increase your support system. Sometimes you also have to tell your organization you don’t want to be in the fast lane for the next one or two years.
What goals are you working on with your protege right now?
With one protege, we’re working on managing up, cross-cultural communication, cross-generational communication, and making a business case with leadership.
Outside of Everwise, I am mentoring a millennial who is moving from an entry level position onto the next level, which is challenging because they have a lot of dilemmas and confusion around moving from an individual contributor to a team leadership role. Being responsible for processes or other people is challenging for millennials because the way they look at workplace and work relationships and even work-life balance is a little different from how their seniors look at these aspects.
You mentioned cross-cultural communication challenges. Can you go into that?
My coaching was along the lines of how to bring about process discipline, because you’ve got to do it differently with different cultures. There’s a huge cultural aspect and dimension to process. The way we look at process is not the same way that it’s viewed in Asian or European countries, for example. There is a formal vs. informal aspect and then there is an internal vs. external focus between these different cultures.
What kind of cross-generational communication challenges was your protege facing?
Millennials love feedback and enjoy increased accountability and responsibility. They generally don’t appear to be very responsible when they start, but they become responsible when you empower them. So it’s always a bit of a chicken or egg situation. Millennials really are crying out, saying, “You consider us to be irresponsible simply because we don’t do things the way you do, but if you give us a chance, we will deliver.” Positive reinforcement and empowerment, rather than control and micromanagement. Millennials want to be given the big picture, they want to be treated like adults and they want honest and direct feedback, (no beating around the bush!) But they’re so different from previous generations that I think many still don’t see them that way.
What’s the secret to a successful mentorship?
Something we do with internal mentorships to increase their success is have the protege and mentor work on a project together. It helps bring the relationship beyond just talking. It really works and you can see the difference. That’s for internal mentorships, but you can find a way to get that little bit extra in other mentorships too. For example, this millennial I’ve been mentoring, he asked me to talk to his boss, who I have no relationship with, no direct connection. But he had talked about me to his boss and she said she wanted to talk to me to understand a little bit more about him and what she could do to help him. I spoke with her about how creative people work, how to work with millennials. It was a very beneficial conversation for her and for him, and I was delighted that I could go beyond my immediate relationship, and become a sort of go-between. I’ve done this internally before, but this was the first time I had the opportunity to do this externally.
Why do you think employee engagement is so low right now?
I think that we are putting new wine in an old bottle. For example, when you’re talking about millennial engagement, they don’t see their place in the company in terms of their role and past responsibilities; they look at the broader organization and their work as a piece of the larger vision. We tend to use the same engagement techniques and strategies that worked before and package it differently. We need to acknowledge and work towards a different set of engagement drivers now, which is key for millennials.
Many millennials will not work for a business that is challenging for the environment or has human right issues. For them it is important more than I have seen it impact the previous generations. I’ve seen millennials pass on the role they really want and take a less interesting role for less pay and more work at a startup because it fits their lifestyle. They’re willing to work in a startup, slogging 20 hours a day to avoid a formal or micromanaged workplace. Traditional organizations need to think about who they are losing people to and why! I think millennials simply break barriers and go beyond the immediate to be more creative and resourceful. I truly get a kick out of their energy. They have a much more holistic approach than any other generation, it’s very different from the energy of the workplace 20 years ago.
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