As early as now in my career, I’ve been given the great opportunity to mentor and manage others. Managing others early in one’s career is no easy task, especially if the people you’re responsible for are only a few years younger, and are smart and bright as those with more experience. They also have the youthful energy that helps them get through frustrations and setbacks in their budding careers. That attitude many times makes all the difference even when there’s nothing more going for them at this point in their careers.
Which is why I like these young people, many of whom I work with on a regular basis. They are fresh out of college, or have only been working for a few years. They teach me a lot about how to manage others, as much as my manager teaches me. The only difference is the former is inadvertent, while the latter is deliberate. I share with you the accidental lessons I’ve learned over time in my short experience managing others:
1. Your reports don’t like to be addressed as if they’re teenagers.
We make a mistake often times when we perceive those who are younger and less experienced than us as if they are babies. This is especially notable when you the age gap is closer to 10 years: you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a fresh grad in their first jobs out of college, and assume they require to be spoonfed information or need handholding even with the smallest tasks because are relatively inexperienced and have much to learn. In an effort to teach or clarify a few topics when they ask a question, we sometimes put on a matter-of-fact tone, and coupled with a slow tempo and exaggerated enunciation, we come across as sounding like their parents, telling them the do’s and don’t’s. Sometimes it’s worse because it sounds condescending to them. These “kids” as we sometimes refer to them behind closed doors, are not babies, but in fact, young professionals with time to develop their maturity for several years post-high school. They are smart, brilliant, even if sometimes they may not be ready to own their work, ask for what they want, or promote themselves aggressively. But they will learn in time, just like we all did after a few more years in the work force. Whenever I feel like I’m guilty of unintentionally talking down on people, I try to remind myself what it was like in those first few years of work after college: and it was quite a memorable experience. Despite the numerous complaints, the tears, the hours invested in the office to drive a deck toward perfection, the yelling, the difficult learning curve… those were magical years because I was incredibly motivated, I was seeking meaningful work, and I believed enough in my abilities that I can make a difference. I these are the traits I developed in college, which were still fresh and quite beneficial in those early years, that I hope never to lose sight of no matter how many years I have spent in my career.
2. They want guidance.
These young people, especially the brightest ones, know that they need to be on their toes all the time, constantly learning, seeking information, and ready to be challenged. They are sharp and they know it, but they also know that right now is the time to assume the role of a sponge, absorbing as much learning as they can along the way. They are seeking someone who can teach them. They want clear information, communication and direction. They want to have guidelines when working on a project to make sure they are on the right track. They want a leader who establishes a clear objective, no matter how small or simple, toward which they can direct their efforts. They get nervous when they are confused about which direction to go. They feel like they are not making an impact. They don’t feel like they are learning as much. They don’t feel like they are doing the right thing. They want authority, even those who are incredibly independent and dislike set orders.
3. They also want freedom.
Oh, the paradox of being a young professional. You want to learn more those more experienced, yet you are impatient to do things your way. Managing young people is an exercise in the complex art of leadership. You have to give them enough freedom that they feel encouraged to trust themselves and try, even if they fail a little. This is how they learn, and the mistakes will be more memorable in the future than things they did right. You have to give them space to fail, but you also have to know the limits that you will allow or else it’s you on the line if you don’t manage the business properly. This is something I am still learning as I go along. I like assigning things. I usually have an idea of what I want to do, and I plan out steps on how to get there, then I assign those steps to people to complete. This style works on some occasions, but not in others. I learned the value of giving others freedom when on one instance, I gave less instructions to complete a project, and I was pleasantly surprised by the results. The outcome was an influx of more creative ideas and ways to solve the problem at hand, because the team came up with ideas on their own and there are as many avenues the request took as there were people on the team. People tap into their creative sides, if you let them. And “creative” doesn’t necessarily mean coming up with something artistic; it could be a new perspective on how to solve an issue.
4. They want to be your friend.
Another thing I’m trying to learn is how to have great friendships with those I manage or mentor from a professional capacity. Maybe it’s the outcome of growing up in a somewhat authoritarian environment, but sometimes it doesn’t come naturally to want to become friends with the young people I work with. I am drawn to build relationships with those older than me, and I’m lucky that they want to have the same with those younger than them. So I should try becoming better friends with the youth. It’s not that I don’t want to be friends with them, but my personal interest and theirs are different most of the time. They talk about pop culture, the latest celebrity gossip, the amazing pop concert they saw last weekend. Frankly, I have no interest in these at all. But I know I have to make the effort, since friendships and emotional connection with coworkers build better working relationships. I learned that showing one’s personal side is not an invitation to be vulnerable, but rather, a way to connect with others from a human angle. So go ahead, show your interest in others by showing curiosity about what interests them, even if it doesn’t necessarily interest you. Give them a compliment or two while you’re at it.
5. They need someone to help them build their confidence.
The youth are a victim of their own hand sometimes. They go into quick changes of emotional states where they are insecure at a given time, and ready to dominate the world the next. If they are in a great role, their encounter with friends and peers who are still in college validate their self-esteem, as they receive compliments and attention from those who covet their positions. But when they go into the office on Monday and meet with directors who discuss strategies and execution among themselves without consulting the opinion of the young, it chips away at their self-confidence which could send them into panic and doubt about their abilities. So as a manager, it’s your job to keep the energy and motivation high among your team all the time. Recognize them for a job well done. Thank them for helping you out on a project. Appreciate their effort even when they make mistakes. They need an advocate. They want to know someone sees something in them. It’s motivating, and a lot of times, it’s enough to inspire them to work extra hard the next time, which enables them to do a good job, ultimately providing them with an increased amount of confidence that will help them ride through any of the several challenging situations that come their way.