What's the ultimate competitive advantage? You may have the most streamlined processes in the business, the most advanced information systems, the strongest supplier relationships, the perfect mix of products for the fastest growing market segments, a wickedly ingenious formula for optimizing your inventory, boosting margins and minimizing costs.

You'll still get killed every single day if the best people in the market prefer to work for the schmuck down the block.

What makes the difference in your ability to find, recruit, retain, develop and motivate A-players in every possible position in your company? And what about the future? Why do “those kids today” seem so hard to figure out, so hard to motivate? To the eyes of the Baby Boom generation and those that came before, the people entering the market and embarking on new careers today can seem lazy, narcissistic, disloyal, rude, ignorant and demanding, just to hit the high points. Nonetheless, they are the future.

Before you throw up your hands, reach for the bottle of Percocet, dial the broker and put your company on the block, you might take a moment to examine your assumptions about what good work means. The younger generations bring a whole different idea of living a good life to the market. If you take the time to look closer, you may find that not only are those kids' attitudes understandable, some of them are downright admirable. Indeed, it may be well worth your time and effort to make some changes to the way you run your business, if it helps you capture some of their energy. The payoff could be huge.

Before we dig further into their young minds, let's look at the bigger picture. Improving your staff is certainly not just a matter of hiring tomorrow's top guns and getting them to tattoo your company logo on their foreheads. (They won't let you anyway.) The workforce is more diverse than that, and besides, the best place to start is to take a close look at what you've got now. Tap the talent within, and then you can enhance it and push it further with new hires.

If you're a typical electrical distributor, you've got a mix of high-level performers, moderately effective role players and perennial underachievers throughout your company. The bell curve is inescapable, so the object must be to move the bulge further toward the high-performance end of the scale.

Bruce Merrifield of Merrifield Consulting, a consultant, speaker and former distributor based in Chapel Hill, N.C., has devoted much of his career to cajoling distribution executives into taking a more innovative, more ruthlessly performance-enhancing and future-oriented approach to structuring and managing their businesses. He recommends that distributors sit down and rank the performance of all their employees, branch by branch, and divide them into three categories.

“You have the As, the top ten percent who are the gazelles, who bring in most of the business; you have the Cs, the bottom ten percent — they're harvesting their territories and they retired five years ago, they just didn't tell you — and you have the Bs, the 80 percent in the middle,” Merrifield says. “What you'll notice is that most of those Bs are clustered just above Cs. They're doing just enough to stay ahead of the under-performers, but why should they do more?”

The goal is to find a way to match the top performers with your most profitable accounts and challenge them to fly higher, keep them engaged and motivated. Tell the Cs to shape up or go elsewhere, and change the compensation so the Bs benchmark on the As.

The trick is that the bottom 90 percent aren't top-10 performers, and most of them don't want to be. And the same is true of distribution companies. They make a comfortable living off the status quo; they're content delivering decent service for a decent price and riding the market into a comfortable retirement. The performance attitude of the company must match that of the employees, Merrifield says. If you want top-tier performers on your team, you've got to offer them a setting in a company structured for top-tier results.

“You have to hire for where you're going to be, not for where you are now,” Merrifield says. “You have to create a compelling picture of the future of the business, their potential for job growth and for making more money down the road. But the whole ecosystem has to support that. If it doesn't, you can still hire top performers, and they'll stay one or two years until they figure it out, then they're going to leave anyway.”

Merrifield recommends a second exercise to understand the makeup of your existing team: Draw an X/Y graph with age along the X axis and years in the marketplace along the Y axis, then plot your employees. You want an even scatter across the graph, he says. If the pattern is too top-heavy, your company is in danger of stalling, with all the key people getting older, getting bored, running out of gas.

It's important to any company's longevity to keep a steady influx of young talent that will challenge the status quo and push established performers out of their complacency. It's the formula used by Branch Rickey, the legendary manager who revolutionized talent development in Major League baseball by creating the farm team system. He would bring in a star rookie every year, even when his existing team had won the World Series the year before. No matter how good your team is, bringing in young blood can make you better.

But just who are these young guns you'll be recruiting, and how do you get them to put in a decent day's work?

The New Crew

Here's the first key point if you want to understand the generations entering the workforce right now: What motivates you as a boomer-era business owner is not the same thing that motivates them. That doesn't mean they can't be motivated.

Marilyn Moats Kennedy has been tracking the demographic research on the post-boom …generations for many years. Through her firm, Moats Kennedy Inc., Chicago, she serves as a consultant to organizations in diverse industries to help them understand and connect with people across generations. She also advises young people on finding their way in an established work world they often find perplexing.

Kennedy traces many of the defining characteristics of the post-boom generations to their relative scarcity, compared to the hordes of peers Boomers had to compete with for attention. This scarcity magnified the impulse toward individualism already inherent in American society. The post-boom generations are also shaped by the lessons learned from watching the Boomers age.

The post-boom generations Kennedy and other demographic analysts call the “Busters” (1969-1978) and the “Netsters” (1979-1988+) prefer to be invisible and autonomous. They'll avoid being identified with an institution. They take to the latest communication technologies like a fish to water, and use them to develop and sustain their networks of friends. They don't look to work for a sense of community, a sense of belonging or identity. That's all defined outside of work.

A few key differences between the perspectives of Boomers and the post-boom generations help to explain many misunderstandings in today's workplaces, Kennedy says. They also may indicate ways to adapt and grow for companies willing to reconsider some core policies.

Time off is more important than money

The Busters and Netsters are not primarily motivated by money. After watching Boomers use credit to finance lavish lifestyles and then work 90-hour weeks to finance the debt, the post-boomers are fundamentally wary of debt. They buy used more often than new, they prefer Lean Cuisine over a $100 restaurant dinner, they are committed to underconsumption as a lifestyle and their savings as a percentage of income is several times higher than the Boomers', Kennedy says. They often live with their parents much longer than their predecessors did, and place a greater value on inclusion in a multi-generational family, as well.

They're far less eager to put in long hours for additional money or a promotion, an attitude that Boomers easily misinterpret as a lack of ambition or commitment to the job. What they value more is time to pursue their lives outside of work. Flextime arrangements where they can set their own hours, schedules allowing three 12-hour days instead of five 8-hour days, telecommuting and especially programs that allow them to buy additional vacation time are far more valuable than cash bonuses and overtime pay.

The post-boom generations are mostly packs of loners. They have little respect for corporate hierarchies and abhor any hint of office politics. They prefer to work alone or in small groups, they're not motivated by what others think, and they tend to describe their work life in terms of the work they do that brings them satisfaction, not in terms of who they work for or the title they've attained.

Expect brutal honesty

The Busters and Netsters have grown up working with computers, and it has shaped the way they communicate. You can't finesse a computer; it's coldly logical, and if you hit ‘delete’, the thing under the cursor is mercilessly deleted, no matter how sweetly you touch the key. Kennedy points to this as a primary reason why conversations between a Boomer and a Netster can be so awkward.

The Boomer manager may say this or that “needs to be done,” and the Netster will hear it as an observation rather than an order. The Boomer can preface a request with, “Would you mind…” and expect the listener to hear it as a command because of the relative positions of manager and employee. The Netster will very likely respond with a detailed list of the reasons why she would mind.

“People assume that everyone knows what good work is,” Kennedy says. “But often they have a set dance around how to do business, and won't tell new hires about it. They (post-boomers) have no patience for this.”

This can pose problems in sales positions, as well. Their brutally honest conversational style may not play well with some Boomer-era buying influences. Kennedy recommends that employers be careful to match the age of their salesforce with the ages of the customers they sell to. It might be helpful here to repeat the second exercise recommended by Merrifield — the age and experience graph — but this time do it for the key buying influences at your most profitable accounts. Compare the results with the graph of your employees' age and experience, and look for ways to match them up.

They don't want to manage it unless they own it

The allure of the Boomers' and pre-Boomers' dream of climbing the ladder in a large, prestigious organization to positions of ever-greater responsibility is entirely lost on the post-boom generations. They grew up watching major employers lay off life-long employees and middle managers by the thousands, and see little justification for the kind of loyalty that drove the now-mythic 30-year Company Man. Instead, their primary loyalty is to building their own skills, which they can offer to the most attractive potential employer while they prepare for an opportunity to start their own business.

Post-boom employees don't expect to stay with any one employer for their entire careers, but they will return again and again to an employer that gives them the growth and learning opportunities they thrive on.

“Recapture is the winning strategy,” Kennedy says. “To the older generations, when somebody leaves the assumption is, ‘You don't like us.’ That's not at all true for the younger generations. They just need to try something else for awhile. The best strategy is to stay in touch. Call them up once in awhile, say, ‘We miss you and want you to know that there will always be a place here for you.’ Two out of five employees will eventually return.”

This aversion to climbing the company ladder will call for some career-track adjustment by employers. “They can become good managers, but you should expect a much longer incubation period,” Kennedy says. It will take the typically solitary Busters and Netsters awhile just to develop the interpersonal skills and instincts that Boomers developed naturally by having to get along with so many of their peers, she adds.

Post-boom generations will also wait longer to find a career (and a spouse, for that matter), and many will put off making a decision about a career direction much later than earlier generations. They'll spend time exploring and trying different things, and will avoid entering college and taking on student-loan debt for many years, until they're certain about the direction they want to go. This spell of indecision can be a huge opportunity for distributors.

“Community colleges are a goldmine for employers,” says Kennedy. “They're the single best source for hard-working young employees. Community colleges have become a half-way house between high school and a four-year institution. More young people are using them as a first step, where they can earn college credit, build their skills and knowledge base, and pay as they go.”

Lifelong learning is a core commitment

Opportunities to learn — especially through mentoring and multi-media training programs they can pursue at their own pace — make up one of the most powerful and attractive incentives a company can offer people in the post-boom generations. This is where electrical distributors who have invested heavily in education and training will continue to reap compounded benefits.

The concerns that keep some distributors from digging into training in any significant way — the worry that investments in training will only serve to create better competitors — are beside the point now. Employers have to accept that they may only get a few years of work at a time from most of the post-boomers anyway, but training will make them more valuable to the company while they're there, and will keep them coming back. Without an aggressive training program, you'll be hard pressed to get their attention in the first place.

Independent, preferably aerobic, work

There are some interesting differences in the kinds of work post-boom generations seem to prefer. They don't distinguish between blue-collar and white-collar jobs — throughout their lives, even professionals haven't worn neckties — and they don't revere big corporations. Where their predecessors in earlier generations may have dreamt of rising through the ranks at IBM or General Electric, the post-boomers would rather work for a smaller company on a mission to make a difference in the world, Kennedy says. They prefer a company that is different from its competitors, more flexible, more progressive. Just as you work to differentiate your company from the competition in the eyes of customers, you will have to do more differentiation in the eyes of new recruits as well.

The Busters and Netsters are almost religious about fitness, seeing athletics as a fundamental way of enjoying their lives more than as a duty or a way to stay more attractive as the Pre-Boomer and Boomer generations, and the Cuspers (1960-68) who fall in between, have done. A job that offers aerobic benefits — say, working in your warehouse lifting boxes of fittings — is not off-putting to them. It's a way to get a workout every day while making a living, which allows them to avoid going to the health club, and they can use that time to hang out with their friends.

Technology is in their bones

One of the greatest assets today's twenty-somethings can bring to your company is their complete comfort with the latest technologies. They grew up in a technologically advanced world with computers everywhere, in constant electronic contact with their friends, and with information on any subject just a click away. As communication and automation technologies play a greater role in every aspect of work, the value of this will continue to rise. They don't come cheap — having the latest technology is a basic expectation. But companies that provide it will have an edge.

“Keep them armed with the latest tools, upgrade them every year, and they're happy,” Kennedy says.

Take all this with a grain of salt

Of course, the post-boom generations are no more homogenous than any other generation. They contain the full spectrum of personalities and workstyles. Yet the generalizations are generally true. Those now entering the workforce do have different life experiences and different expectations than those who went before them, shaped in part by their smaller numbers, their familiarity with technologies that could not even be imagined when Boomers were young, and their observation of the consequences of choices made by others. They'll take a different path and make the workplace a different place — probably filled with smaller, more entrepreneurial organizations and free agents. They will be your co-workers, your successors and your customers. It's worth a little work and adaptation to gain the benefits they bring.