Shh! Don’t use the m-word …

My adorable 3-year-old niece will reprimand someone if she hears them say the “s-word,” and will follow-up with a lecture on appropriate behavior. That’s kind of how we treat the word “millennial” at PennAir.

Generational cliches (with me included in the millennial category) are doing more to create division than unity within the workforce, so at PennAir, we don’t dwell on them. By the way, so your mind doesn’t wander – her “s-word” is “shut up.”

Now, let’s get back on track. We do not focus our business on millennials, baby boomers, Zs, Ys, etc. We focus our business on people. No matter what baby boomers or millennials have to say, they are similar. Like, eerily similar.

First, some background:

In 1968, Jim and Mary Conrad started the Penn-Air Co., a small industrial distributor of pneumatic and hydraulic components in a small garage in York. The first loan barely covered a few months of rent and one rack of inventory. Through the 2000s, the organization grew and added a few divisions through expansion and acquisition. The associates who were there from inception started to talk about retirement, and the industry had changed since the 1960s.

In 2015, our organization faced a crossroads. Do we fight to revitalize the organization and make it sustainable for the next 20 years, or do we just let the business continue to run off momentum as long as it could? The team chose to fight.

With digitization, customer expectations have increased considerably, so our business model shifted from a focus on the distribution of pneumatic and hydraulic components to a true industrial technology company. Today we distribute, assemble, integrate and design pneumatic, hydraulic, and automation components and systems. If you’re not an engineer or mechanically inclined (I’m neither), that means we support the marketplace with anything from an air cylinder to an autonomous vehicle.

As a result, we’ve worked hard over the past few years to rebrand, reorganize and relocate PennAir. This effort was a huge undertaking for a super-traditional business in a super-traditional industry.

So, has it worked?

In short, yes. We’ve expanded into new markets and predict growth where the rest of the industry predicts declining revenues. Most importantly, through all this change, our team has become stronger, closer and just flat-out better.

As I reflect, four key ideas have shaped our transformation and success:

1) Recruit people, not millennials: I’m serious about this. Many companies approach recruitment from extremes: They avoid the issue of a changing workforce entirely, or lean way too hard toward attracting younger generations to work for them. Both are mistakes.

At PennAir, we never said, “Let’s create a place where millennials will want to work.” Instead, we said, “Let’s create a place where everyone wants to work.” We simply want to attract the best talent possible.

As we recruited high-performing, more-experienced workers for senior positions, we discovered that they actually liked a lot of the same workplace attributes as millennials. As a result, we created a bright, open facility, with several meeting rooms. But most importantly, we created spaces for people to connect. We traded in the old-school mahogany table in our board room and replaced it with table tennis. Our large meeting space contains an orange pool table that’s frequented by our president, new hires, senior sales engineers, customers, suppliers, etc.

We stopped focusing on the age gaps and started just focusing on the people.

2) Define flexibility for your environment: Flexibility in work can be viewed different ways. We’re working to create a completely mobile workforce. Today, roughly 80 percent of our team can work anywhere within our facility. That’s the key – within our facility. We have several positions that can work from home, but our focus has been to keep people inside our walls to connect with each other, while still providing the flexibility to sit anywhere on our campus inside or outside.

3) If you can’t retain them, join them: We had a few positions in engineering and assembly that were turning over more frequently than they had been historically. So, we started designing our teams and positions to withstand turnover by creating flexibility and implementing stronger processes. We’ve even designed positions within our production, engineering, and technology teams that make it comfortable for leadership and associates if the position turns over every few years.

Adopting this strategy – embracing potential for frequent turnover instead of bemoaning it – would certainly look different from company to company. At PennAir, the adjustment was more art than science, but all in all, this philosophy has helped us grow to where we are today.

We’ll always fight to keep our associates, but we’re going into the working relationship understanding this position may turn over because of the market demand, and that’s OK. We’re happy to be a small part of anyone’s story.

4) Look at resumes differently: On a related note to the third point: Let go of expectations for “the perfect resume” during hiring. Millennials are notorious for job-hopping. Traditionally, this indicates lack of commitment, but we’ve yet to discover that it’s a true barometer of success or failure within our organization.

Job-hopping can really mean that a potential hire is honing in more and more on what he or she actually wants. If an applicant’s career goals align with your vision, don’t be scared to hire that person just because his or her resume shows several companies over a short period of time. At PennAir, we have found it can actually be a great asset. How many people on your team can actually speak to the processes, styles, etc. of more than three companies? If you have associates with ‘job-hopping’ history, you can probably learn a great deal from them.

In the end, we’re all looking for better performance within our companies, but we need to acknowledge the world is changing quickly. At some point, as leaders, we have to admit that none of us can stop generational change, and every generation is going to provide new quirks that make the workplace different. Instead of trying to manage generations, work to understand the nuances of a dynamic workforce. Create a culture that grants freedoms for multiple types of associates, at different ages, skill sets, life inflections, etc. to embrace their strengths and in turn, enhance your organization.

And, shush, don’t use the “m-word.”

Seth Bray is the COO at Springettsbury Township-based PennAir, a distributor of pneumatic, hydraulic and electro-mechanical technology. During Bray’s three years as COO, PennAir has expanded into the collaborative robot, cooperative robot and autonomous industrial vehicle spaces.

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