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7 Ways Managers Can Develop 20-Something Workers

A group of business people working together in an office.

​Talented workers, especially members of Generation Z, tend to lean heavily on their bosses for professional development, and their companies should relish that passion for growth and the opportunity for long-term business success.

According to a new study by Tallo, a career advisory platform for younger professionals, 43 percent of Generation Z workers are most interested in learning leadership skills. Seventy-four percent say they place a high value on mastering soft skills generally, including critical-thinking, analytical, problem-solving, leadership and communication skills.

The Tallo survey noted that Generation Z professionals want help from their managers with the following:

*Building technical skills, such as those related to science, technology, engineering, software development and design.

*Developing leadership skills, such as communication, management and critical thinking.

*Learning new languages. 

*Practicing agility, such as through opportunities for collaboration, experimentation and continuous learning.

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," said Judy Panagakos, senior career coach and director of professional development at Early Stage Careers, which is headquartered in New York City.

Panagakos, who was a longtime human resources specialist at global financial services firm J.P. Morgan, said 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 said. "Having a cadre of trained talent eager for fresh challenges is essential for a healthy organization."

Vince Thompson, chairman and CEO of MELT, a sports marketing and branding agency in Atlanta, puts it another way.

"I like to use a National Football League analogy," he said. "You take the best draft picks, compensate them well, cultivate them to start for the team one day, hopefully win the Super Bowl and get your return on investment from the initial hire."

Learning Is Earning: Training the Next Generation

Once companies stop viewing the development of young talent as a luxury and start viewing it as a necessity, what are the best strategies for grooming members of Generation Z for success?
Management experts point to these 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 them determine the best way to accomplish it.

"That means asking questions instead of offering answers," said 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, said 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 advised.

2. Be patient. One of the most important tips to consider 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," said 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 said. "Because 20-something-year-olds have minimal experience, they don't have an established foundation to start with. With this in consideration, their training effort should be slower-paced and broader than usual."

4. Review the strengths that younger workers bring to the table. Give your Generation Z team members assignments that challenge and excite them and allow them to shine and do their best work.

"Conversely, if you know that a young worker has a weak spot, offer to help them with it," said Deborah Sweeney, CEO of, 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. Match Generation Z workers to the right managers and follow up with feedback. It's important to understand that younger workers are still in a process of transition—and to train them accordingly.

"To ensure that their concerns won't be left unheard, assign them to managers who have the patience but also the same drive to develop the younger herd," said William Taylor, senior recruitment advisor at Velvet Jobs in Los Angeles. "Training programs are also a great way of [helping them understand] what it is that the company wants to achieve and their role in that process."

Feedback is also ideal. "This generation loves constant feedback—good or bad," Taylor said. "Good feedback fuels them to redouble their efforts in their jobs."

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 insight into concepts that the new hire is immediately grasping and where they still need training," Sweeney said. "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 common themes across the board."

7. Learn how to 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 said. "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 side of the coin, [troublesome] signs are using downtime to do nothing or to begin projects that may not necessarily be worth the time and investment," she added.

Additionally, know that success on independent projects does not necessarily make for a great manager.

"Some team members are better solo contributors than managers, and that's OK," Heiligenstein said. "Good managers should offer progression paths for both.

"For someone to become a manager, I always have them take on tasks involving people management before they receive a promotion," he added. "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. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw Hill, 2004).


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