7 Tips for Managing Younger Workers

Use these strategies to help 20-something employees succeed.

By Brian O'Connell August 23, 2021
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7 Tips for Managing Younger Workers

​Younger workers tend to lean heavily on their bosses for help with professional development, and companies should relish that passion for growth and the opportunity for long-term business success.

According to a recent survey by Tallo, a career advisory platform for younger professionals, 74 percent of Generation Z workers (those born after 1996) said they place a high value on mastering soft skills such as critical thinking, analysis, problem-solving and communication. When asked about various upskilling and reskilling opportunities, the respondents indicated they are most interested in:

  • Developing leadership skills, such as communication, management and critical thinking (cited by 43 percent).
  • Building technical skills, such as those related to science, technology, engineering, software development and design (33 percent).
  • Practicing agility, such as through opportunities for collaboration, experimentation and continuous learning (13 percent).
  • Learning new languages (11 percent).

Unfortunately, many managers don’t prioritize developing workplace talent, and that’s a missed opportunity for companies.

“If any organization is not investing time in recruiting young talent and cultivating their capabilities, it is a colossal mistake,” says Judy Panagakos, senior career coach and director of professional development at New York City-based Early Stage Careers.

Panagakos, who was a longtime HR specialist at global financial services company J.P. Morgan, says businesses miss out when they fail to create a pipeline of people learning their processes, culture and mission.

“Focusing on these issues will train younger people [to be] poised to take your business to the next level,” she says. “Having a cadre of trained talent eager for fresh challenges is essential for a healthy organization.”

Once companies stop viewing the development of young talent as a luxury and start seeing it as a necessity, what are the best strategies for grooming their 20-something workers for success?

A quote with a woman, Judy Panagakos, which reads "“Having a cadre of trained talent eager for fresh challenges is essential"

Management experts point to these seven tips:

1. Let them know it’s OK to fail—as long as lessons are learned. The key to nurturing 20-something talent is to communicate a clear goal and let each employee determine the best way to accomplish it.

“That means asking questions instead of offering answers,” says Michael X. Heiligenstein, director of content strategy at Flex, a rental payments services company in New York City. “It means sometimes letting younger staffers take an approach you might not otherwise recommend. Sometimes, it means letting them fail on their terms and then helping them understand why a given strategy didn’t work.”

Heiligenstein, who has spent his career mentoring and training younger employees to become managers, says he wouldn’t give someone a sizable project on day one.

“Start with training them on core tasks, progress from there to working independently on straightforward assignments, and then progress to more open-ended projects,” he advises.

2. Be patient. One of the most important tips to remember when developing younger workers is to have patience and remind yourself that they are starting from square one.

“New employees, especially younger ones, do not have the same level of experience and knowledge as senior employees,” says Jeff Dundas, founder and CEO of Talk Central, a telecom company based in Houston. “It’s in the best interest of the company to keep that in mind to minimize [unrealistic] expectations and to avoid discouraging younger staffers.”

3. Tailor training methods to experience level. “Training and nurturing 20-something-year-old employees is significantly different from training established employees because the training regimen for older employees can build and expand upon their pre-existing foundation of experience and knowledge,” Dundas says. “Because 20-something-year-olds have minimal experience, they don’t have an established foundation to start with.” As a result, their training should be slower-paced and broader than others’.

4. Capitalize on each employee’s strengths. Give your 20-something team members assignments that challenge and excite them and that allow them to do their best work.

“Conversely, if you know that a young worker has a weak spot, offer to help them with it,” says Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com, an online document services company in Calabasas, Calif. “You may encourage them to sign up for classes where they can better finesse their skill sets or partner them with a mentor who has experience in that department and can guide and help them to learn new concepts.”

5. Follow up with feedback. Managers should provide plenty of feedback to younger workers. “This generation loves constant feedback—good or bad,” says William Taylor, senior recruitment advisor at Velvet Jobs in Los Angeles. “Good feedback fuels them to redouble their efforts in their jobs.”

It’s important to understand that younger workers are still in a process of transition—and to train them accordingly. Training programs are also a great way of helping them understand what the company wants to achieve and their role in that process, Taylor says. 

6. Find out whether your training is yielding results. Managers should check in with the rest of the department to see how younger workers are doing in their respective roles.

“Department members may be able to provide key insights into concepts that the new hire is immediately grasping and where they still need training,” Sweeney says. “They can help outline the strengths and weaknesses they observe in the new hire and compare notes with other members of the team to see if there are any common themes.”

7. Identify top performers and future company leaders. “I’ve found there is a variety of ‘the right stuff’ that contributes to a young employee being able to expand into a leadership role,” Sweeney says. “These team members will often take ownership of a project—after getting a go-ahead from management first—and will ask others in the department where they can help when they have downtime.”

On the other hand, troublesome signs are when they do nothing in their downtime or begin projects that may not necessarily be worth the time and investment, she adds.

Additionally, know that success on independent projects doesn’t necessarily make for a great manager.

“Some team members are better solo contributors than managers, and that’s OK,” Heiligenstein says. “Good managers should offer progression paths for both.

“For someone to become a manager,” he adds, “I always have them take on tasks involving people management before they receive a promotion. That could mean training new employees or managing a group project. If a team member does well on their own projects but has a hard time managing others, that’s a clear sign they’re not yet ready to take on the role of manager.”  

Brian O’Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa.

Illustration by Marc Rosenthal for HR Magazine.

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