Growing Young Leaders
Most of us have read articles about the work generation gap – Generation X and Baby Boomer leaders trying to manage the expectation of Gen Y and Millenial co-workers. Given my experience of recruiting and developing graduates over the past 15 years, I have seen at first hand some of the challenges. However, with any challenge comes opportunity. I’m exceptionally proud that in the FTSE 250 company where I led the team responsible for graduate recruitment and development, if you fast forward 15 years, many of the wonderfully enthusiastic, (slightly naïve!) 20 somethings that I met are now MDs or CEOs in their own right. Some of that success is down to education and career moves, but there is something to be said for how I helped those young people to “navigate” through their early career years – helping them to step back from career limiting conversations they were thinking about having or providing a safe place for them to explore how they feel.
Sometimes you don’t realise what you did, until you see the results many years later! Thus it is only with the benefit of hindsight that I have done some extensive research into integrating young people into work so that we can all make more of the potential opportunities for the generations to work fabulously together – and get the business results that this can bring, faster.
We often tell our young people that the key to future success is to “…work hard…get your grades at school/University.” So this they dutifully do… However, the world of work is very different and the rules of engagement differ from employer to employer. I’m often asked to help organisations who want to undertake cultural change or establish their vision and values. In those sessions, it can actually be quite difficult for adults who have experienced different organisational cultures to pin-point exactly what it is that makes their organisation tick and why some people succeed in it where other individuals (who might be equally talented on paper), don’t. How do people get on around here? Sounds like a really easy question to ask. But in most organisations I have experienced, it is actually quite difficult and nuanced to answer.
Your values or your competency frameworks might be written in black and white, but there’s likely to be a lot of grey in between. Perhaps you have some people who were promoted before the framework and values were introduced because they were technically very able and whilst they are OK as team leaders, they are a long way from modelling the behaviours that you now actively recruit? Or maybe you have a senior leader whose behaviour is sometimes very out of sync with what you have written on the wall, but this is tolerated because they have significant experience the business can’t live without.
Through our education, we train our young people to think “Yes, but…” a lot. They are taught first to understand a logic or a factual argument and then to explore what their own eyes tell them, and to back that up with evidence. Therefore we should not be surprised that using that same model in the workplace takes some practise because applying those techniques to matrix organisations with complicated cultures, employment histories and some quirky characters to boot is actually really difficult.
If it is hard for experienced adults to describe, imagine what it is like for a 20 year old with the limited work-experience that comes alongside studying hard to understand what work and career progression is actually like in real life. I have met many young people who struggle to express themselves well at work to start with – they don’t do their future selves any favours. Sometimes the values and competencies don’t help them. Let’s assume that “Honesty” is a core value and that “Straight Talking” is a core competency. I have many examples in similar circumstance of helping new graduates to understand that there is a significant and and important difference between expressing strong opinions that shows they are driven and ambitious versus expressing emotionally charged “honest” frustrations that their careers are not moving in line with their rapid but essentially unrealistic expectations to anyone who will listen.
So what can you actually do? Well, here is the result of my own research – some scientific and some based on my experience of working with young people who have subsequently gone all the way. I’ve focused on the GAP between what the organisation wants and what the young person has to offer. Equally the opposite GAP – what the young person wants and what the organisation has to offer. My work is about bridging that gap by:
1) Helping young people to understand “the grey” – how to prepare and present themselves so they can navigate their organisation. Helping them to develop the resilience and self awareness so that they channel their drive and focus appropriately, enabling their potential on paper to be recognised sooner.
2) Helping experienced leaders to understand the power and implications of their behaviour . Well-intentioned interventions can actually inhibit the development of the young person – or at least slow down the time it will take for them to become the highly productive team member they can absolutely become. Small, simple, personal actions can make an exponential difference.
In a 2016 study, Deloitte found that 70 % of millennials were planning to leave their employer in the next 5 years, citing a lack of leadership development development as the primary reason. Thus taking the time to develop your most talented millennials makes sense in order to develop retention. However, given the gaps highlighted above, it makes sense for development activities to focus on both helping the young leaders develop skills the organisation wants AND asking the current more senior experienced leaders to support that development so that they increase their understanding of the millennial mindset. Deloitte found a direct correlation between building a solid foundation of trust and integrity and millennial employee retention.
We use the 6 key criteria that the Young Foundation reference in their research paper “Ready for Work” to highlight the specific areas forming the GAP. This work highlights the criteria that young people needed to develop to get and keep their first jobs. This was not created with graduates in mind, but we have found in our own work that the principles absolutely apply. We refer to these elements as The Big Six in our development programmes:
• Self Aware – Taking responsibility, not shifting blame and controlling emotions.
• Receptive – Accepting feedback with humility and respect to address weaker areas.
• Driven – Focusing on the right things. A positive attitude, punctual, organised and persistent.
• Self-Assured – Asking questions, Impact of body language and self esteem on growing trust.
• Resilient – Coping with setbacks, rejection, obstacles and mistakes. Managing uncertainty.
• Informed – Understanding workplace, cultural etiquette, presentation and customer service.
Each of our programme modules focuses on 1 or 2 of the Big Six. However the approach is iterative and we build upon the previous module inputs in order to increase the efficacy of the later modules. For example self awareness using a very simplistic form of MBTI/Jungian type based on colours is used on Day 1, but we use these colour behavioural preferences as a was to understand what might get in their way of asking for feedback or staying focused and positive on Days 2 and 3.
We encourage the young people to feedback to one another on every session about how they come across to one another in relation to each of the Big Six. This regular feedback cycle helps to both develop their understanding (in order to feedback to someone else, they have to understand the criteria in more depth) and to enable them to get comfortable more quickly with giving and receiving feedback – a key part of the “Receptive” quality in itself.
There is no “pecking order” for the Big Six, but in our experience, building resilience gives easier access and better success with the other Five. Thus understanding and building resilience is a “golden thread” that is woven throughout our programmes.
There are commonly known to be 6 Domains or predictive factors of Resilience – Collaboration, Vision, Reasoning, Composure, Health and Tenacity. Given that 6 unrelated words are quite hard to remember, we map these 6 into our THRIVE acronym. We have found that this simple adaption makes retention easier and in no way detracts from the validity of the 6 Domains.
Tenacity remains – Learning perseverance and some skills to grow mental toughness are required in order to increase your speed of “bounce back”
Health remains – Exercise, nutrition and sleep have well known practical effects on our ability to cope.
Reasoning remains – Accepting that resistance to change is the human norm, but learning to accept change as inevitable helps to increase resourcefulness, problem solving and self-reliance.
Integration replaces the more usual Collaboration – Strong social support and integrating with people in your community and family is statistically shown to increase resilience and even reduce disease mortality rates.
Vision remains – To be resilient in adversity, your brain needs a reason to go on, a purpose.
Emotional Control replaces Composure. Developing the ability to choose a positive/optimistic mindset, practising self control and mindful self-awareness are all key to noticing where our resilience is low and deliberately taking control of emotions in order to re-charge it.
We use science and research to make the building of resilience a “no-brainer” for the young people and include specific sessions on individual aspects such as developing an optimistic mindset using Seligman’s (live longer and earn more money, anyone?!) and David Rock’s recent neuroscience on the effect of feeling threatened on our ability to think reasonably about change using his SCARF model (have up to 80% of your cognitive function disabled before you respond to a challenge, anyone?!)
We also do a simple, repeated activity in every session to connect the group with the wide variety of research on the topic. We ask delegates to do a internet review using their phones at every session to find a Top Tip for building resilience. They are not constrained. Their Top Tip can be about building resilience generally or specifically about sleep, exercise or mindfulness. Repeating this activity throughout the programme enables them to try out their own tips or those found by other team members and report back on their progress.
We describe that the Big Six Qualities can be Emerging, Developing or Established. We encourage the young people to think about where they would rate themselves and to actively seek feedback from other people in the organisation and their family and friends. Interestingly our experience is that the delegates over-rate themselves to begin with, but become much more critical as the programme progresses. We hope that this is the beginning of their development of a “growth” mindset that we regularly refer to on our programmes; that actually they see “Developing” in each of the Big Six as an end it itself – almost a permanent state – rather than rushing to tick the box to become “Established”as they tend to do in the beginning.
In terms of established leaders we encourage informal and proactive support for the programme. We have undertaken “pre-sessions” for the line managers of leaders where we walk them through the programme. We let the established leaders know more about what young people really want from work and therefore specific things that they can do that will be actively helpful in both embedding the learning AND demonstrating the qualities that the young person is likely to value highly. Examples include proactively asking their young leader to share their learning with the team; offering 2 way feedback sessions and reading supplied blogs about the science underpinning the programme.
We also help the established leaders to understand some of the accidentally unhelpful things that they might do unless well prepared. Examples include forgetting the young leader is going on the session and not asking about it, seeing 121 reviews as nice to do and modelling exercise, sleep, holiday and relationship resilience good habits by ensuring their own work:life balance is managed. We discuss the importance of the “Authority Matrix” – that young people will repeat what they see you do if you are in a position of importance – not what you say and so mixed messages are important. We encourage the established leaders to think about their own habits that might accidentally advertise micromanagement and over-working as a “good” leadership quality by sending emails on holiday or regularly working on days off.
We usually also have sessions entitled Leading by Example and Company Values on these days. We use storytelling to explore the importance of congruency for young leaders between what they hear about your business via the Values, Competencies or their Induction and their first experiences of dealing with the leaders in the business. So on their first day your young leader might read your Values on your company literature. The values might include Lead by Example. Stands to reason that they go, “OK so I can expect everyone here to get on by Leading by Example”. Then let’s imagine it’s their first meeting with a senior mentor they have been allocated. Maybe the mentor had to postpone their first meeting because a really significant business issue came up and their board director wanted an essential piece of information. Then perhaps at that re-arranged meeting the mentor apologises profusely for running a bit late and starts the conversation with “Tell me a bit about you,” whilst trying to find their CV. We help the more senior leaders to reflect on habits they might have which might undermine or confuse a young person for whom transparency and clarity about the culture are virtually important. We usually refer to a 2010 Deloitte study, that unlike their generation, younger employees are generally less motivated by bonus, benefits or pensions. Instead they look for flexibility, company culture, training, the opportunities to use their creativity, transparency and real time feedback.
Another study we refer to comes from Cornell University.
Their research found that young people require:
Highly productive environments
To feel valued and be able to voice opinions
To be taught new skills, to be reviewed on how well they apply them and to be given feedback.
To be given career development opportunities
Managers who allow autonomy and flexibility
Practical activities that we ask the senior group to consider are how they could better seek opinions and ideas from the individuals in the group – or from the group as a whole. Ideas from those groups have included sharing blogs, message boards, shared social media and more regular succession planning.
With some clients we have also set up reverse mentoring schemes with senior executives and invited members of the senior and executive teams to be trained in the Big Six by the young leaders as part of a final activity on the day of their “graduation” from the programme.
Hopefully this insight into our research based approach not only summarises some of the science and research about how to develop young people, but enables you to better understand some simple things that your learning teams, individual line manager and your organisation could actually do in order to increase the efficacy of your graduate development. We’d love to help!