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Alice Waagen regularly answers workplace and management questions from readers.
Q. As a CEO of a mid-sized consulting firm, I am a firm believer in succession planning for my organization. I find having a pipeline of high potentials developed to take over key positions is critical to the health of my business.
That said, it is getting harder and harder to keep my pipeline of potentials full. I have a big demographic gap between my mid-career leaders and the bright up-and-coming younger professionals.
When I do see potential in a younger staff person, I find them resistant to the develop and wait approach I’ve used before. They basically want promotions then to learn as they go. This sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.
Alice Says: First of all, let me thank you for not using the “M” word (millennials) in your question but rather to couch it in more accurate terms: not birth year but employment lifecycle.
Impatience and arrogance are not owned by a birth-year group. They come with the territory of being young and full of yourself.
You are aptly describing a phenomenon I call “what worked before simply won’t work the same anymore.” In my professional youth, the best and brightest were labeled “high potentials” and shipped to three- to five-day leadership development workshops.
Once graduated, they were deemed ready and promoted into the managerial ranks. In hindsight, this did not even work well back then. Classroom theory is no substitute for real-world experience. Marry this with an age cohort that wants information just-in-time, on demand, preferably digital, and you can see how high the development disconnect can be.
Rather than rail against the values of the younger worker, I suggest leveraging their growth aspirations to meet your needs. Do this by shifting your concept of leadership development to ways that will appeal to and be effective for this group:
Challenge a cadre to curate the leadership wisdom of the web. Podcasts, Ted Talks and You Tube have created a vast library of leadership lore. Their task is to identify the pearls within a sea of dreck. Ask for two or three volunteers to share the nugget of the week: one web-based learning resource that can add to the collected leadership knowledge of the group. Ask them to lead a brief discussion group (live or virtual) about how this information can be used to improve effectiveness or efficiency in your organization. Experts call this “peer learning,”using buddies as knowledge sources.
Create informal mentoring relationships. Most corporate mentor programs fail from a weight of overbearing structure, i.e.: prescribing meeting times, lengthy discussion topics. Set up a fluid program where your top talent can approach anyone for advice and counsel but must focus their interaction on a specific inquiry: for example, how to be strategic when tactical demands weigh heavy. Let relationships grow organically rather than by fixed assignment.
Embrace virtual. Between telecommutes and altered work schedules, getting folks to be face-to-face is nearly impossible. Invest in collaboration tools, share sites and video technology and encourage learning to be on their time and interest.
As for the expectation of promotions, this is where you need to be loud and clear about opportunities. If you want a lean and agile organization not burdened by bureaucratic layers, don’t speak of vertical promotions.
Figure out other ways to recognize and deploy your talent than by fancy titles. Challenging job assignments, peers who are bright and willing to engage in tough dialogue, and organizations that are built on open feedback and encouragement are worth far more than the title and the big desk.