There is a popular notion these days that younger workers and professionals, especially millennials, aren’t interested in working hard to put in their time before being promoted to leadership positions; that they somehow feel entitled to all they want without putting in the time like those who went before them.
I’m not sure I buy it as an indictment on the entire generation. In fact I know I don’t. There are fine examples of those that got ahead through hard work that I can tick off of by name upon request. But I can also give even more examples of those who exemplify and even go beyond the popular trope by arguing with their bosses and thinking themselves ill-used when asked to do normal work. So what to do as both a young rising professional and as a boss?
Here are your answers…Leadership development for bosses. Willingness to follow for young professionals. Challenging young professionals with diverse tasks for bosses. Humbly accepting new tasks and understanding the value of diverse experience for rising professionals.
Bosses have to recognize that they lead in a cultural era in which they must justify their decisions unlike their own C-level leaders and mid-managers when they were young professionals themselves. Gone are the days when you did what the boss says and never expected a reason. Whether or not you’d like it to be that way again, the current culture is what it is. Young professionals have information that wasn’t available to them 20 years ago regarding leadership styles, successes, and corporate climate. Thus, it is unreasonable for leaders today to say “Because I said so” in response to a why question. In days past that might have worked for bosses when younger talent stayed with a single firm for life. Not any more.
So what should bosses do with their young professional risers? Mentor them. Develop them. This isn’t as simple as talking to them and telling them what you did. It isn’t merely urging them on to do better. This is not the Pointy-Haired Boss of Dilbert telling his charges to “work smarter, not harder.”
Leadership development and mentoring is a deliberate, difficult task. It is several steps that are both generalized for all your people, and at once idiosyncratic to tailor that mentoring to the individual.
First, you must hire the right people. In my experience and in my recommendation, that means try to hire people smarter and better than you. It takes a strong leader, a humble leader, to recognize that you are a better leader when you are surrounded by outstanding people who can make you look better and be the most successful leader. Those that hire people beneath their own capabilities will always be the smartest person in the organization, but they will also have to necessarily stay engaged at a level far lower than they ought to in order to ensure everything gets done. If you think hiring people smarter than you will somehow threaten your authority, then your organization has deeper flaws than your hiring needs can fill.
Second, you need to mentor each individual to his or her own desires for their future. Some people want to get to the top as far as possible. Some people get to a place in their career where they love the job and want to stay there till retirement. Others like the business and aren’t sure what they want for their futures and are looking for guidance. It is the good leader’s job to steer the rising professional to their desired ends while maximizing their current output to meet your present organizational needs. This takes time. This keeps you from running day-to-day operations all the time. That is good. You shouldn’t be running your operations when you hired people to do that. Your job is developing your replacements.
Third, you ought to find diverse opportunities for your rising professionals. When you have someone who is a real wizard at production planning, it is natural to want to keep that person doing that job for as long as possible. But the hit-by-bus problem, while rare, rears it ugly head often enough that you must consider what you will do when someone is gone and you need a replacement. Furthermore, it makes for a better rounded professional to know multiple different tasks and how they work together. If you are genuinely developing your young professionals, you are not only helping yourself in the present, but preparing them for future leadership. So once again, you have the opportunity that the people you trained and developed might be lured away to another company, but you also make a strong name for yourself and your company for hiring the best people and developing leaders for all companies.
And what about the rising professionals? If you want to get to the top, and if you want to be taken seriously, you need to seek diverse experience and you need to be humble enough to do what tasks are given you. In this era or every young person demanding and expecting respect, it is wise to do something to earn the respect. It is perhaps natural for you to want to rise through your ranks to leadership positions. But it is not reasonable to expect your employer to move you up without proving your worth first.
Seek out diverse opportunities. Volunteer for interesting, but potentially time-consuming tasks. Seek out some team tasks that show you what it takes to work well with others. Your leaders will not promote you, no matter how smart you are, if you can’t show that people can and want to work with you. Yes, you will still be responsible for your primary duties as well as the side tasks, but you will have to learn to manage your time if you want to move to senior leadership positions.
You will also want to show your leaders that you are humble enough to do whatever tasks they give you. A year and a half ago, during Q&A at a leadership forum in which I was speaking at the Air Force Academy, I was asked about what a person can do early in his or her career to become a good leader. I said right away, “Be a good follower.” I told the audience that their bosses had the advantage of more information about the decision than they have and more experience in dealing with such situations than the young professional.
Furthermore, the young rising professional must be humble enough to take the seemingly crappy jobs or additional duties that have to get done, but that nobody wants. I remember being given the security manager additional duties when I thought I was too senior for that about 20 years ago. My boss and his boss merely wanted to see how I’d handle the situation and if I’d set an example for my own subordinates. Today I look back and can say that I didn’t handle it well at first. I failed the test initially. Then when I opened my eyes, I finally saw that it was an important job and I had to set an example. As soon as I did it well, my boss gave the job to another riser.
Never be too big for yourself to serve others and to take the seemingly small or tedious jobs. You will build more capital for yourself with your leadership and you’ll gain really valuable experience to help you see how much goes into your operations that you might otherwise not consider.
Understand that this approach will take time for both the leader and the young professional. Nothing as important as your company’s strategic future or your own professional development can be done quickly. If it was easy, then everyone would be going after the quick trick. But it isn’t easy. Be patient, both of you, leader and rising pro. Be deliberate. Give really good mentoring and demand it from your boss as well. Both the company and individual will be better off in the long run.