One of the most worthwhile things you can do as a leader is to help someone else to develop their leadership skills

This form of mentoring is extremely satisfying, as you watch a younger person gaining confidence and inspiring and motivating others. It is also extremely necessary to ensure that the next generation of talent is ready to take on the challenge of setting direction and leading our organisations in a world that becomes increasingly unpredictable and prone to change.

Millenials and their perceived attitudes
If we talk about supporting young talent, probably the term “Millennials” springs to mind. It is a term used somewhat loosely to describe the generation of people born in the latter part of the 80’s or in the 90’s. A lot has been written over the past few years about the Millennials and their perceived attitudes and values. This has provoked an equally big back lash from many members of this generation, who react by saying, “We’re not all the same! We’re not all entitled, self-absorbed and over-protected.”

Attributing qualities to a whole generational cohort is obviously going to lead to inaccuracies, but if we take a couple of the themes that come up in the debate about Millennials, it may give a few clues about how to support young talent in your organisation, whether or not you subscribe to the theories about the Millennial generation.

The implications of “Digital Natives”
Millennials are sometimes referred to as “digital natives” because they have grown up with mobile devices that allow constant access to an astounding number of connections and information. There are a number of consequences:

Your added value as a leader. Knowledge is freely available and therefore no longer confers authority nor a particular degree of respect. Your added value as a leader comes not from what you know, but what you know how to do and how well you can pull together teams of people with different forms of expertise. Helping someone to develop as leader in today’s world is often about helping them to discover their own values and develop the skill of getting diverse teams aligned around a common vision. Coaching your young talent to develop both the skill of communicating a clear direction and being open to hear others’ points of view is necessary more than ever before. The skill of managing teams that comprise people of different backgrounds is critical to success in today’s world. A young leader that has not taken the time to explore his or her own perspectives, prejudices, preferences and values will find it difficult to embrace the diversity that is typically present in cross-functional or cross-cultural teams.

Interacting face to face. Young people who have grown up with Facebook, Snapchat and any other number of social networking tools may be very at ease with digital communication, but may overlook the need for good old-fashioned face-to-face discussions. It is so easy to send a one-line message that it is possible to forget that there is no substitute for looking someone in the eyes and seeing the reaction on their face as you discuss. Mentoring a young person may include helping them to think through how they use technology wisely, benefitting from all the advantages of instantaneous communication, but also being aware of the pitfalls of not getting the non-verbal clues that can help us communicate at a deeper level sometimes, or that can simply avoid you getting into a useless conflict based on a misunderstanding.

Maintaining perspective. My colleague Mark Thomas, in a recent article on this site (Is being “Time Poor and Harassed” the “New Black” for Managers and Leaders?) refers to the insights of Simon Sinek who goes so far as to say that younger people may develop a dependence on smart phones that poses a real threat to their self-esteem and their mental health. Whilst the young leaders that you are coaching are maybe able to make a distinction between the instant gratification of a “like” and more meaningful feedback, you may nevertheless need to help them to take perspective and not react immediately to every email or every tweet. Sometimes they may need to be encouraged to put the smart phone on one side and take the time to develop deeper relationships, engage other people in conversation in order to forge real understanding and to get crucial feedback that does not get transmitted in a one-line What’s app message.

Navigating organisational politics. Millennials are often criticised for not respecting hierarchy. This is a comment that one hears particularly in cultures that have undergone a significant political or social change that leads to more freedom of expression than previous generations had. Again, the internet is responsible for the democratisation of information. Everyone has access and everyone can express a point of view. Whist the various blogs, vlogs and discussion groups on line provide a useful platform for democratic exchange, your young leader has to recognise that organisational politics still exist and that some kind of respect of individuals’ positions maybe necessary, depending on the organisational culture in which you are operating. Thinking about how to lobby, look for allies, be able to assess who has power and who does not are skills that one rarely learns in the virtual world where everything is just “out there”. You will serve your young leader well, if you help him or her navigate the organisational politics of your company. This is not about becoming Machiavellian or manipulating, but simply recognising that power still exists and you need to consider how to position your ideas, if you want to be successful.

Finding meaning. Finally, the literature talks about Millennials needing a sense of purpose in order to be motivated in work. It is hard to imagine any generation that will not respond positively to seeing sense in the work that they do. It has always been, and will continue to be, inherent to the role of leadership to help people to find meaning and see where they fit in the bigger picture. Who do they serve and what value do they add? A sense of purpose does not have to be a lofty statement but just pride in  the job that the person is doing and a conviction that it is contributing to something larger than just the task at hand. If you want to be an outstanding leader, the best thing you can do is help your younger leaders to find their own sense of purpose and work with them to ensure that they never forget to engage in conversation, tell stories, pass on feedback from third parties and do whatever is needed to remind their teams just how important the job they are doing is.


Coaching Young Leaders

About the Author

Paula Cook

Paula Cook is a training and development specialist, with over 20 years experience in the field. She designs and delivers training programmes on a range of topics, including leadership and management skills; communication and interpersonal skills, influencing and change management and remote teamwork.