Sixty percent of employers feel that young employees are not wholly prepared for the workplace. It’s not due to a lack of internship involvement, as most students are required to secure experience within their field for college credit. It’s not because their resume isn’t robust enough; their extra-curricular activities and achievements often outnumber their more seasoned office counterparts. As many have said before, a college degree has become the new high school diploma. This means that college hasn’t prepared students for the workplace as it was intended to. It’s the Young Employee Dilemma, and it’s time to bridge the gap between potential and performance.
Due to the harsh reality that begins to set in right before graduation—it takes experience to get experience—young professionals often feel like the black sheep of the company. While they might have unmatched potential and a degree that possibly should have earned them a higher position, they’re not among your top performers. When employees have more energy than experience, I suggest you nurture them, leveraging the following four priorities.
1 Value relationships before results
I recognize you’ve got to generate revenue… or you’ll go out of business. You’ll gain an ally to increase profits, however, if you demonstrate you value your young professionals. They often feel that their Baby Boomer or Generation X boss doesn’t care about them personally. They feel they’re expendable, like just another “number” at the office. They’re not job-hopping because they aren’t loyal. They are keeping their options open for other opportunities because they feel they might be let go at any moment.
If we want loyalty, we must model loyalty; and it must start with a culture of care and growth. Show that you want to invest in young team members. When leadership genuinely cares about the personal life of team members, it shows young employees that their company is willing to go above and beyond to support them. And they want to return the favor.
2 Offer harsh explanations in light of high expectations
Giving feedback—even difficult feedback—is possible when you position it in light of high expectations. Research shows that managers can furnish harsh feedback when it’s positioned this way: “I’m giving you this feedback because I have high expectations of you, and I know you can reach them.” Suddenly, they don’t feel like a loser, but an achiever. You’re simply saying: I believe you are better than this.
If you want them to go the second mile, model it in your own life. If you want them to grow, you need to develop them. Like it or not, the companies that are finding and retaining the best young professionals are ones that assume the role of mentors. They believe in their young team members, allowing them to fail and cultivating resilience in them. Jobs become more than transactional, but transformational.
3 Teach the importance of soft skills, not just hard skills
You already know this, but employers are crying out for fundamental skills in job candidates such as eye contact, positive attitudes, emotional intelligence, communication, and collaboration. Recent grads have been working on their GPA and hard skills but are often socially and emotionally behind. Employers today are more concerned with EQ than GPA. This means, we must take time to mentor them, not just manage them. To earn a return on investment from younger staff, we have to actually make some investment. Instead of just giving them a task, also give them your time. Be available for conversations on their progress, and demonstrate you’re willing to help. Don’t just foster company growth at meetings, foster personal growth as well. We’ve recently created a tool to enable you to have these conversations: Habitudes for New Professionals (Habitudes are images that form leadership habits and attitudes).
4 Cultivate unity in the midst of diversity
I’ve often said that relating to a twenty-something for me is like a cross-cultural relationship. In the land of tomorrow, I am an immigrant while they are natives. I do much better when I work at connecting with them just as intentionally as I would a cross-cultural relationship, where I must learn a new language, customs, and values. When they see me working at connecting with them, it cultivates unity in the midst of diverse generations.
At Growing Leaders, we practice reverse mentoring where our senior staff pour into young team members, but we also seek their insights based on their strengths. I also try to speak their language—recognizing they might prefer flexibility in hours over monetary bonuses. Private listening fosters public loyalty.
As leaders, our success rides on our ability to harvest and unleash the potential of those following in our footsteps. But it’s difficult to do when this generation of professionals continues to show us they are unlike any other. Therefore, the first and most important piece of the puzzle is understanding who this new generation in the workforce really is so we can adapt our management style to better lead them.