How to turn gen-X and Millennial employees into your company’s next leaders
Star Trek: The Next Generation
by Conal Pierse
Whether you’re looking one, five or 10 years down the line, leadership development is critical to your company. Regardless of the size or stage of your business, if you want to stay agile and adaptable, an important focus is on the leaders of tomorrow. And sure, right now your junior employees might be moon-faced, pie-eyed, green-horned or whatever other compound adjective you want to slap on them, but your job isn’t to deride their management potential – it’s to develop it. This isn’t evolution; it’s intelligent design, and you’re the guiding hand.
Just as employees should be eager to learn and develop their skills, an organization needs to foster that growth, says Margot Ross-Graham, vice-president of integration at Williams Engineering Canada. It might seem like a large cost in time and resources, but Ross-Graham says courses, seminars, opportunities and mentorship should be seen as an investment rather than a cost. “If you really believe in developing your employees, you’re taking a leap of faith that this development is going to have an impact on your organization,” she says. “It’s not going to be short-term gain; it’s going to be long-term impact.”
Search and Rescue
When it comes to identifying future leaders, the signs generally become apparent early on in their careers, says Karl Moore, associate professor at McGill’s Desautels faculty of management. In the past 10 years Moore has interviewed close to 200 CEOs and found that many of these individuals were first spotted when they were in their 20s.
Despite their relative youth, such individuals display an eagerness to take on extra work, a willingness to work late to see a job through and a desire to face challenges rather than avoid them – all characteristics one would expect in a vice-president.
Leadership training isn’t for everyone. It requires time and energy, which are best spent on those with the highest potential. While this might alienate a candidate from his or her peers, it’s up to them to navigate the green tides of jealousy.
“A critical danger is that other people are prepared to dislike them because they’re the fair-haired crowned princes and princesses,” Moore says. “They have to be careful that they don’t get dragged down by others through jealousy, and the way they do that is through humility. You go in there with a willingness to learn and a willingness to respect another person’s experience.”
The Future of Leadership
Chances are you already have someone in mind – a rising star or reliable workhorse that’s ready to take the next step. Or are they?
Tamara Erickson, author of Plugged In: The Generation Y Guide to Thriving at Work and What’s Next, Gen X?, says many employers start looking for their next generation of leaders without considering that perceptions of leadership aren’t what they used to be. “Many young employees don’t want to take over and lead,” she says. “For boomers, the idea of being a leader is such an obvious desire that the idea that someone wouldn’t necessarily be jumping up and down to do it is unthinkable. They don’t even consider that they may have to convince people as a first step.” Part of that has to do with how leadership is changing among younger generations. Erickson says millennials and gen-Xers are increasingly unimpressed with the traditional, top-down style of leadership, and companies may have to reevaluate how they’ll lead going forward to reflect that. “It’s important for companies to begin to redesign their training programs to teach a different style of leadership – one that’s more collaborative,” she says.
It’s not just ideas of leadership that are changing. Your business is, too. That means it’s essential to consider the roles you need to fill going forward, says Ross-Graham, and to make sure you’re training young employees with the organization’s future in mind.
Without forethought into leadership development, your organization could find itself with a handful of square pegs and nothing to fit that proverbial round hole. By understanding what you want, you can cultivate what you need.
If there are two words you’ll hear constantly when talking about training young employees, they are “mentorship” and “coaching.” But Erickson is skeptical of how most organizations approach mentorship: with rigid, structured programs that match an employee up with an older one in the organization. “It’s better than nothing, but where they become a problem is where they have a stilted or forced dimension to them, where two people are assigned to each other and you have to get together once a month and chat about something. That’s just weird.”
Instead, Erickson suggests providing your would-be leaders with a list of contacts within the organization who have experience doing the same kind of work, and letting them get in touch when they have questions. That way, they can develop more organic relationships with mentors they’re compatible with.
In the end, developing a leader requires the effort and participation of both sides, says Ross-Graham. The up-and-comer has to be ready and willing to invest in their future, and the organization needs to afford them the opportunity. If the two halves can’t meet halfway, the effort is wasted. “There’s a lot of art to developing your next leader and there’s a bit of science,” Ross-Graham says. “All the processes you put in place are great and all the programs you use are awesome, but it will take both the individual you’re putting in as well as the managers to make that process successful.”
A Practical Education
So you’ve identified your leaders, and they’re ready to move forward. Now what? Moore suggests giving so-called “stretch assignments” to young candidates that place them outside their comfort zones. This way they gain broader exposure within the organization while working to resolve their weaknesses. Then, as they get older, he says the focus should shift to building on their strengths.
The advantage of such on-the-job training as opposed to coursework or seminars is that it offers practical benchmarks for measuring performance, Ross-Graham says. By providing candidates with projects and opportunities, management can not only see how an individual will handle a real-world task, they’ll also be providing genuine leadership experience. Likewise, generating results builds confidence and competence in the employee.
However, when assigning projects, it’s important for the job to be legitimate, rather than busy work. Managers should also be wary of assigning major projects, she says, because if they sink, you’re sunk.
The way her organization balances this is by peeling off current duties from a trainee and replacing them with ones from their potential future role. Candidates being considered for future regional manager positions, for example, are included in weekly regional director meetings, granting them greater exposure at a higher level.
“If I take a three-week holiday, I could have somebody cover me for that period who might be a future leader and give them the opportunity to make all the decisions,” she says. “It’s an on-the-ground, on-the-job opportunity to develop someone and have them make some tough decisions on the things they don’t know in a fairly safe environment because it’s short term.”
Erickson says on-the-job training is also better suited to the way younger employees learn. “An important element of working with younger generations is to provide training in an on-demand, as-needed basis,” she says. “Instead of thinking you’re going to send someone to a class and teach them everything they need to know, it’s much more effective if you can provide access to information when the issue arises in the person’s work life.” She suggests providing your gen-X and gen-Y employees with a directory of resources, whether that’s an online database or a network of contacts within the business, that can help them deal with issues as they arise.
Profit From the Non-profits
While you want to offer as much managerial experience as you can to junior members, the fact of the matter is sometimes there’s only so much you can offer in-house. This is where the non-profit sector can help out in a big way. It’s a way of giving back while gaining something at the same time.
By getting your future management material to sit on the boards of volunteer and non-profit organizations, you expose them to a wealth of experience, says Ross-Graham. Not only will they be helping the community, but they will gain experience with financial management, oversight and delegating responsibility on an executive level.
It’s also great for networking and can provide them with exposure to other experienced business professionals who can guide and educate them, says Ross-Graham.
And while the financial statements might be different, the basic concepts are all the same.
Need help bringing up the young employees in your company? Or are you a gen-X or gen-Y worker looking for a way to reach the next level? Here’s a list of books on management, leadership and growing your career – whatever your cohort – to get you started.
What’s Next, Gen X?: Keeping Up, Moving Ahead, and Getting the Career You Want
Stuck in the Middle: A Generation X View of Talent Management
Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y
Leadership in a Multigenerational Workforce: Learning How Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y Can Work Together
Plugged In: The Generation Y Guide to Thriving at Work
Millennials into Leadership: The Ultimate Guide for Gen Ys Aspiring to Be Effective, Respected, Young Leaders at Work