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Rob Cross

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Getting the best from Generation Y


Recruiting and retaining Generation Y poses a real challenge for HR professionals as the techniques used for previous generations no longer apply. Rob Cross explains how to master a different approach.



"So where do you see yourself in five years?" I asked the 22-year-old who is now in their third week of the BT Graduate Programme. "Well, I want to get a few years experience in the private sector before going to work for a charity," the graduate responds thoughtfully.
As the manager of graduates, this is the one of most common answers I get from Generation Y once they are through our doors. "A charity?" I ask. "Why a charity?"
"So I can give something back," the graduate replies, wondering why I would consider such a question. "And, if I take my experience from the private sector, then I’ll be better at it."
Every time I hear this response I realise again how different this generation is from my generation, or from the Baby Boomer generation before me (born 1943-60).

Gen Y: A dilemma of definition

Responses such as "save the world" or "I don’t know" to the question "where do you see yourself in five years?" give a direct contrast of who Generation Y is.
As much of the research suggests, unlike the generations before them, Gen Y no longer want a job or even a single career for life. Instead, they see themselves as flexible, globally mobile and active participants in shaping society. They no longer want to just abide by the beliefs and constraints about work and careers that their parents so diligently followed. But this creates a dilemma: If Gen Y no longer defines themselves by their profession or career like the generations before them, then how do they define themselves?
For those of us in HR responsible for recruiting, developing and ultimately retaining Gen Y this poses a major challenge. The techniques we employed for previous generations no longer have the same effect – money and title is no longer enough.
So what do we do? Ultimately I believe we need a different approach, and this involves us looking across the evolving continuum of intelligence from IQ (intellectual intelligence) to EQ (emotional intelligence) to SQ (spiritual intelligence). And by doing this, we will see that to get the best from Gen Y, we need to continue developing them as professionals, while also helping them define and fulfil their purpose as contributors to society.

The continuum of intelligence

Today our understanding of intelligence is evolving to extend from IQ to EQ to SQ (Figure 1).

For the Baby Boomers the focus was on IQ – our intellectual or rational intelligence used to solve logical or strategic problems. This is why my parents would so often say ‘without an education you can’t get ahead!’ But with people’s expectations at work changing, we soon realised that IQ alone was not enough. We realised that we must build strong effective relationships to get things done. This is why Gen X has searched so hard for ways to develop their EQ – their capacity for recognising their own feelings and those of others.
For Gen Y however, the next evolution of expectations is occurring. As a result we are seeing that merely concentrating on IQ and EQ is now no longer even enough. Their desire for meaning and purpose in their lives, beyond just a ‘career title’ means a new level of intelligence is developing – this is known as SQ. Danah Zohar, a leading author on SQ, defines this as the intelligence with which we address and solve problems of meaning and value and through which we assess whether one course of action or one life-path is more meaningful that another.
Understanding this new level of intelligence, SQ, provides the key to engaging Gen Y. However, in looking at SQ we also cannot neglect the importance of helping Gen Y develop their IQ and EQ, as without doing this we reduce the foundation for developing and applying their SQ.

A complete approach to development

To get the best from Gen Y, using the continuum of intelligence, we need a complete approach to development that extends from IQ to EQ through to SQ. In this approach we firstly need to develop Gen Y as professionals by focusing on IQ and EQ. And secondly, we need to help Gen Y define and fulfil their purpose by focusing on EQ and SQ (Figure 2).

Part one: Developing Gen Y as professionals (IQ and EQ)

How to be effective when faced with the intense politics and rapid change that plagues our organisations is not something Gen Y or any of us were taught. As a result, those new to the professional world often struggle to find their feet, meaning that organisations fail to quickly get the best from them.
For Gen Y, we must therefore ensure we develop them as professionals as soon as they pass through our doors. This requires us to look at both IQ and EQ by providing the knowledge and tools to operate effectively in the professional world, thereby equipping them to:
  • Better manage themselves as individuals in the context of their organisation
  • Work more effectively for their supervisor or boss to make sure they are delivering what is really required
  • Build effective relationships and teams so they may extend their influence through the people they rely on
  • Make a real difference by focusing their energy on that which will deliver the greatest value.
Focusing on these areas will provide Gen Y with the foundation they need to be truly effective professionals within their organisations. Additionally, it will enable their organisations to see the real value this new generation can deliver, more rapidly than we give them credit for.

Part two: Helping Gen Y define and fulfil their purpose (EQ and SQ)

For the generations before them, finding purpose and meaning is something they have sometimes considered but which usually slipped to the back of their minds as they progress toward the classic definitions of success and security. It only then re-emerges once they reach the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy at self-actualisation. For Gen Y, however, they don’t want to wait that long – they are looking for meaning now! For organisations, this means that we need to help Gen Y define and fulfil their purpose in a way that reconciles professional life and personal fulfilment. To help them do this we need focus on EQ and SQ by providing the environment and tools to:
  • Build who they are by strengthening their core person in terms of developing their self concept and social awareness;
  • Understand what’s important to them through defining their values and purpose in terms of what their contribution to the world will be; and
  • Take considered action by being far more conscious about how they use their energy in seeking to fulfil their purpose.
By helping Gen Y define and fulfil their purpose, organisations will see them become more engaged and focused at work and we will also see them more rapidly make a positive contribution to society.

We need a complete approach

For those of us in HR to unlock the true potential of Gen Y, the new generation of people entering our organisations, we need to look across the continuum of intelligence from IQ to EQ to SQ. In doing this, our focus must be on developing them as professionals and then on helping them to define and fulfil their purpose. It is only through taking a complete approach that we will gain greater value for and from them, both in our organisations and society as a whole.
Rob Cross is global talent and graduate manager at BT Global Services. He is also author of ‘Grad Expectations: the essential guide for all graduates entering the workforce’. For more on this book, visit:

2 Responses

  1. Thought provoking but one sided

    A thought provoking article indeed, and written with a great deal of compassion. But I guess it’s inevitable that it’s been written from the corporate viewpoint and focuses on enabling Gen Y to adapt to the workplace culture. I suspect some of these young mavericks will have an even greater impact in adapting the organisation to their outlook!

  2. Generation Y

    Hi Rob

    What a fantastic thought provoking article, and thank you for introducing Danah Zohar to me! Not a lot to comment on but it really struck a cord with me and what you hear and see in that generation.

    I really like how at the end you talk about ‘for and from them’, really inclusive which so many businesses miss today.

    Many thanks Deborah


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