“If I’m shinin’, everybody gonna shine…”
Back in the day, we casually compared ourselves to the Godfather to express how we felt about work. In the hallways and elevators and conference rooms, you’d hear people pepper their conversations with lines like “Make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “This is the life we have chosen,” “Never side against the family” or — using Fredo’s pathetic plea to describe someone who was overreaching — “I’m smart too!!!”
The Godfather was literally made by a company that embodied the conglomerates that overtook America in the 70s: Gulf + Western, owners of Paramount. One of the many reasons it resonated so powerfully was that it reflected big business at the end of the 20th century: Hierarchical, Secret, Willing to bend or break the rules and, above all, Masculine. (To quote Luca Brazzi: “And may their first child be a MASCULINE child.”)
You don’t hear those lines from the millenials who ride our corporate elevators or sit in our open offices. Not because they haven’t seen the movie — no doubt, Dad sat them down one day and made them watch parts 1 and 2. (Please god, Dad, don’t show them 3!)
They don’t quote the Godfather because the world it describes is half a century (or more) away from where we live today. The world of business today is not hierarchical, it’s “team” oriented. People don’t belong to the same family/company for their entire life, they work one gig after another. You’re not expected to stay silent while the more senior members of the team make decisions, you speak up and share your views. And you want respect, because you could very easily get a job somewhere else if you wanted.
OUR FOR YOURSELF, OUT FOR YOUR TEAM: NOT A CONTRADICTION
The cinematic metaphor that captures today’s corporate world and the way Millenials and Gen Z view their working lives is The Avengers.
- The work gig to gig.
- They have no problem “challenging” each other in the middle of doing a job.
- They demand respect for who they are. Hell, almost all of them have their own movies! They don’t need this one!
- While they all want respect and equality, there’s still a fair amount of adoration for Tech Bros like Tony Stark and, to a degree, Bruce Banner.
- They work to be the best that THEY can be. To quote Thor’s Mom: “The measure of a hero is how they succeed at being who they are.”
- They are WAY into self-care. At the beginning of every Avenger’s movie, people are just chilling. And then all hell breaks loose. And then they talk about “Do I really want to do this?” And Tony Stark doesn’t fool me! When the camera’s on, he’s always in his workshop. But the rest of the time, he’s hanging out with that Goop woman!
Don’t misunderstand my tone. This isn’t one of those dismissive pieces about millennials and Gen Z. I actually love working with them. I think I get along with them really well, despite my grey hairs. (Feel free to leave comments, colleagues, if you disagree.)
(SIDE NOTE: I mentioned this theory to a friend, who said that the research they had done at MTV Networks showed that two movie series preceded the Avengers as a defining metaphor. Millennials first had Harry Potter, which portrayed a black-and-white world of good vs. evil, Wizards Vs. Muggles. In the wake of the financial collapse, Hunger Games defined the world for Millennials. Today, we have the more hopeful Avengers.)
If you are in business today, you need to understand that your employees think of themselves differently than you probably thought of yourself, that they expect something very different from their relationship with you, and they want the companies they do business with to have superpowers.
Search the phrase “We all have superpowers” on Medium or Linked In. You’ll find dozens of articles talking about how YOU can have superpowers by harnessing qualities like discipline, patience and planning. (None of those are actually superpowers — I don’t think you’re going to see a new Marvel team made up of Superheroes who are tortured by their messianic ability to calendar or manage a project.) What’s interesting is that these qualities are THOUGHT OF as Superpowers.
(Side note: Have you noticed that every Marvel movie contains a “to do list” in the first five or ten minutes? Take “Thor Ragnarok.” About five minutes in, while Thor twists in the wind, a monster who resembles talking lava chides him with the imposible 5 steps he will have to accomplish to save the world. It’s a scene that resembles nothing so much as a Gary Vaynerchuk video about how to be successful.)
Within those dozens of articles, quite a few talk about how we should expect businesses (especially startups) to be more than just businesses, to have superpowers. Consumers have come to expect that the brands they do business with will also do good. They expect products to over-perform their promises. They want their needs to be fulfilled and they want to be delighted at the same time.
One more thing: there is a sense of urgency in late millennials and gen Z. Again to quote from “Endgame”: “The world is up to us.” Time and again I see research about late millennials and Gen Z that says they feel that they are the last generation with an opportunity to solve climate change and economic inequality.
EVERYBODY GONNA SHINE
At their core, the Avengers movies embody the spirit of “Shine Theory.” As the Lizzo quote above says, if one person shines, we all shine. And we all don’t shine if everyone doesn’t shine. In “Endgame,” the movie doesn’t take off until Captain America and Iron Man bury their beef and agree that the team and the mission are more important than either one of them.
I happened on Shine theory while reading about Lizzo. And I’m no expert, but I think this emerging theory helps a lot in understanding where we are in management today. We should all be happy for each other’s success. We need to support each other and approach our relationships (both personally and professionally) with the intention of helping each other succeed. The Medium articles I found about superpowers talked about personally building a network, companies building an ecosystem, and creating a “win-win” climate. That’s so so so far from the corporate world I began working in (particularly the world of comedy).
When I was coming up, if you won I lost and vice-versa. Of course, business is still highly competitive. And there are winners and losers. But within the workplace, if you think you can manage your employees along the lines of “This is the life we have chosen,” and the strict hierarchy of a Godfather-like world… it won’t work! And if you are trying to get millennials and Gen Z to love your brand, you better demonstrate some superpowers.
I have a deep love of pop culture in all of its forms, on all platforms. I often write about culture on this blog. I also consult for a number of companies who are trying to make an impact on our culture through the intersection of traditional and digital media. I can be reached through the contact form on this site.