Saturday, April 12, 2014

Are You Holding Your Young Stars Back?

I don't have any data to support this, but my observation is that technical professionals in senior management roles in other industries are younger overall than in the A/E business. My work routinely connects me with top managers in engineering, environmental, and architectural firms. They are predominantly Baby Boomers like myself.

Yet I often meet technically-trained "senior" managers in other industries who are in their 30s. Am I imagining things or is it possible that we are slower to allow top young performers to advance up through the ranks?

Studies indicate that younger workers are often frustrated by the lack of advancement opportunities, a problem that has only gotten worse with the economic downturn. My own experience surveying and working with Gen Xers and Millennials in A/E firms confirms these findings. These young professionals commonly feel they are being denied deserved opportunities to take on greater responsibilities and increased autonomy.

Of course, I frequently hear Boomer managers complain about the younger generations' "unrealistic" expectations. These managers put in their time and "paid their dues" to achieve their current status. Why do the younger generations think it should be different for them?

Well, maybe because the times are different. For one thing, there's a looming shortage of experienced engineers and scientists as Boomers retire.That alone may be good reason to fast-track the development of younger technical professionals.

There's also research that suggests that Gen Xers are particularly suited for taking on the leadership challenges of our post-Great Recession world. They're collectively more entrepreneurial, adaptive, collaborative, open-minded, pragmatic, and purpose-driven. One cross-generational study of 1,200 professionals found that they substantially favored Gen X managers over Boomer ones (70% to 25%)! Maybe experience isn't all it's cracked up to be.

I do think our industry tends to give too much weight to seniority. I often encounter younger mid-managers who deliver much better business results than their older senior-manager bosses. Yet those older managers define the direction of the firm. 

Could your firm benefit from giving greater leadership responsibilities to your younger standouts? Are you taking steps to accelerate their development? Here are some suggestions for doing just that:

Clarify career paths. Young professionals want to know specifically what it takes to advance. Yet many firms don't make it easy to determine the steps for career growth. Position descriptions typically describe basic qualifications, but the means of obtaining those qualifications is often less clear. The best firms have established a professional development curriculum that specifies what training and experience is needed at each stage of one's career.

Rethink experience requirements for advancement. Experience matters, but employee development doesn't always follow the straight line progression that job requirements sometimes imply. Think it takes 4-5 years to qualify as a project manager? Some younger professionals are ready earlier. Experience thresholds are better used as guidelines than as requirements. Give flexibility to your extraordinary performers.

Combine coaching with training. While many firms attempt to introduce mentoring opportunities for younger workers, most ignore coaching. There's an important distinction, the primary one being that coaching is real-time, as work is being performed (the table below highlights other differences):

Studies show that performance improvement following training skyrockets when it is combined with coaching. That only makes sense: People learn more by doing than listening. Plus coaching provides the immediate feedback and reinforcement needed to dramatically improve performance. Why then is it rare? It takes a significant investment of a leader's time. But it's an investment that can yield a worthwhile return.

Learn to let go and delegate. Many managers struggle to delegate work adequately, and the next generation of managers suffers for it. Delegation is challenging because it takes time to do it right, it means giving up some control, and the next person likely won't do the job the way you would (or as well). But delegating appropriately is critical for developing your young stars. Give them as much as they can handle, but not without proper oversight. 

Regularly seek their input. Senior firm leaders often make the mistake of not soliciting advice and feedback from their younger professionals. This neglects a valuable perspective, whether the issue is project-related or a matter of corporate strategy. Gen Xers and Millennials see things differently, which is precisely why you want to talk with them. Their ideas may not yet be seasoned by experience, but they are often fresh and insightful—and perhaps just the right answer for the situation. When you get them involved in important matters, both you and they ultimately benefit.

Take them along. One of the simplest steps in helping your younger professionals develop is also one of the best: Invite them to join you in your work. I recognize there are limits to this practice given the importance of keeping people (and especially junior staff) billable. But consider this personalized training. Visiting a prospective client? Take a rising star along. Negotiating a big contract? Invite a young colleague. Holding an executive session to discuss your strategic plan? Well, you get the idea.

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