This article examines the strategic decision by Atlanta, GA-based U.S. LUMBER to focus recruiting and development efforts on the millennial generation after the Great Recession.
After the Great Recession, companies in the building materials sector had an additional challenge to face. Because the sector was so hard hit, many veteran employees left for greener pastures in other sectors or even different industries.
“We just didn’t have enough bench strength in the company because we hadn’t hired enough for a period of time. We were alive, but we had shrunk during the recession,” says Jeff McClendon, president and CEO of U.S. LUMBER Group LLC, Atlanta, GA. “So in 2012 or so, we said it’s strategic for us to begin hiring and training millennials.”
Millennials now represent the largest generational cohort at the $800 million building materials distributor, accounting for about 37 percent of employees. And now that the company is entering an expansion phase, getting more skilled talent in place is more critical than ever.
‘There’s no magic’
From the start, McClendon and COO Bryan Lovingood have taken an active role in implementing the new recruiting strategy, leading by example instead of just pressuring from the top to focus on getting new blood into the organization. They went with HR staff to college recruiting fairs, “shaking hands and meeting all the kids” face-to-face.
They take an active role in the onboarding process, as well, tracking new recruits through the first few years of employment.
While that’s great for helping new hires define their own paths within the company, keeping that close connection also helps refine the onboarding process for future recruits, says Megan Burke, manager of communications, training and onboarding – and a millennial herself at 33.
Right now, the company is looking for ways to implement a training process more driven by goals than prior implementations. When Sarah Cameron, 28, started six months ago, she was sent into the warehouse to learn whatever she could.
The freedom to flow from one project to the next, to help direct how much time she needed at each position to actually learn its role, was a positive. Once she learned the skills she needed, she could move onto the next task without having to wait for an arbitrary span of time to pass.
But in some ways, there was too much flexibility, Cameron says. “I didn’t have a checklist of things that I needed to know, and it was hard for me to gauge what I should know.”
Partway through her training process, her branch manager asked her how much she had learned. “Basically I just said, ‘Ask me something that you think I should know and let’s just test it,’” she says. “Then I’ll know what things I need to improve on and what things I need to focus more on or less on.”
It’s definitely a work in progress, Burke says, but “we are working on it.” And the company will continue to work on it so that it can be in a position for future success as it grows.
“We’ve built enough relationships and spent enough personal time with (our trainees) to be able to figure out what motivates them, what frustrates them, what they like and how they think,” McClendon says. “There’s no magic there. It’s a coaching process led from the top.”
Bringing the past to the present
Baby boomers still account for 29 percent of U.S. LUMBER’s employee count, McClendon says, and getting them to embrace the changes is, in many ways, more difficult than working with the younger cohort.
While McClendon, 50, is quick to praise the contributions millennials make – “Jeff thinks he’s a millennial himself; he walks around saying he’s a millennial,” Burke says with a laugh – the veteran employees may view the desire for doing more as abrasive or impatience. “They just view work and the world so differently.”
Where they feel they’ve earned their positions and responsibility through putting in the time, they see millennials as “getting to do more quicker,” McClendon says. “And to be honest, they are getting to do more quicker. But that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do.”
A core piece of overcoming that challenge is improving communication between the generational cohorts, Burke says. “That’s where the connection is off a little right now.”
Millennials tend to value efficiency over tradition, Burke says. There’s value in allowing new workers to ask why things are done a certain way – even when it’s used against her.
“We had a trainee, Andre, in marketing who was working on a project when I walked past,” McClendon recalls. “And I asked him why he was doing it a certain way. He said, ‘That’s how Megan told me to do it and she’s been here longer than I have.’ I stopped and told him that’s not how we do things here.”
Like many distributors, U.S. LUMBER operates with a set of core values. Unlike many others, U.S. LUMBER adapted its core values specifically to embrace the next generation. Since the decision to actively focus on recruiting and developing millennials, the company has added a value to the list: Lead with influence; not position, title or tenure.
The value is in what you know and the skills you have, not necessarily how long you’ve been with the company. And that applies to every employee.
At the same time, millennials value the institutional knowledge that veteran employees bring – even if they sometimes feel like it’s a struggle to access that knowledge.
“Baby boomers are an invaluable resource of information about customers and products, but you only get so much from them,” Cameron says. “You’ll get off the phone with somebody who’s not the warmest person in the world, and Dave will say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s just grumpy.’” Or they can share information about past delivery challenges or invoicing issues.
“For all our senior management to be champions of (our millennials) is the best thing we can do to retrain our middle management,” McClendon says. And that includes giving them more opportunities to shine right out of the gate. To do that, trainees are often assigned operational projects to complete to help them learn the ropes and contribute immediately.
For example, one trainee was tasked with assessing the viability of changing over the company’s truck fleet from diesel to natural gas. The trainee had to evaluate the economics, logistics and other factors and then present his findings to senior managers.
“He obviously couldn’t do it alone,” McClendon says. The project required him to talk with other, more senior employees to get the information needed to do a complete analysis. In the end, the company decided against the switch because there weren’t enough refueling options within the delivery footprint to support the logistics.
“But the economics are such that, as soon as the logistics of refueling get solved, we will probably go down that path,” McClendon says.
Doing more ≠ promotion
One of the most persistent stereotypes about millennials is that they want to be promoted to CEO in six months. But asking for more responsibility is very different than wanting a new title, and too many people trapped in the old-school way of thinking don’t understand that.
For Cameron, the title isn’t nearly as important as not being stuck in one place. Advancement that requires waiting for someone to retire “just isn’t that appealing to me,” she says. “But I want the ability to grow – and be paid for what I’m actually doing.”
Doing more and being promoted are “two very different things,” McClendon says. “The millennial says, ‘Hey, I want to do more. I want to contribute more.’ I say, ‘OK, great. I want you to do more too.’”
That’s not followed with an automatic title change and pay increase. Instead, managers are encouraged to give them more to do and to lay out goals for moving to the next step. “They want to feel like there’s a path to more position, more money, whatever. But it’s not really different than the previous generation,” McClendon says. “Everybody has kind of always wanted that.”
Development is not just dictated from the top down, Burke says. “We want to provide options to allow them to choose their path for development.” What are their financial goals? Career goals? Experience goals?
It helps that younger employees can look across the company and see people who have taken that path before them, says Brandon Conklin, a 23-year-old financial analyst at the corporate office. “There are people who have worked here for two years that I see have worked their way up, there are people who have worked here 13 years that are still working their way up.”
Even though he’s only been with U.S. LUMBER for six months, Conklin is already considering how he wants to grow with the company.
“I think they’re definitely open-minded about what I want and what I have to say, but I also recognize that what I want isn’t necessarily what the company needs (at any given time),” he says. But so long as there is open and honest dialogue about what’s best for everyone, he sees an opportunity to contribute and feels valued.
Authenticity is critical to making millennials feel they have a place, McClendon says. If you’re not being authentic, they aren’t going to buy what you’re trying to sell them. On Friday afternoons when employees gather in McClendon’s office to play video games, he’s right there alongside them.
“But if I didn’t like to play FIFA (on the Xbox), I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. I’d just look stupid,” he says.
U.S. LUMBER’s Core Values
U.S. LUMBER’s core values are not a static document. The most recent addition was made in response to differences in how
millennials view their roles in the workplace, according to President and CEO Jeff
As individuals, U.S. LUMBER employees have nine core values that we live by. They didn’t come from consultants, nor are they aspirational. They reflect what we actually believe and how we actually behave. They are WHO we are.
- Be Consistently Responsive to Customers and Suppliers.
- Always Do the Right Thing – Even When it is Hard.
- Don’t Finish Fresh. Give Everything You Have Every Day.
- Live with Intentionality. Make Sure Your Progress is on a Well Conceived Path.
- Give Credit Where Credit is Due. Most of the Credit is Not Due to You.
- Use Your Influence to Have a Uniquely Positive Impact on People.
- Develop People by Serving the Whole Person.
- Live out Idealism. Don’t Settle.
- Lead with Influence; not Position, Title or Tenure.
Source: U.S. LUMBER