How Leaders Can Encourage Young Talent to Thrive

When scouting for young talent, I value a personality trait leaders can’t teach or provide: competitive spirit. Prospective employees who have played sports or competed in other ways appeal to me. People who like to win are willing to sacrifice and invest in themselves. In turn, leaders are eager to invest in them.

Vince Thompson, chairman and CEO of the Atlanta-based sports marketing agency MELT, used the National Football League as an analogy for leaders to consider. As he told the Society for Human Resource Management:

“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.”

Sports metaphors aside, encouraging young talent to thrive is among the most challenging and necessary responsibilities leaders face. However, that role has shifted recently, particularly regarding  Generation Z, which holds a complex mix of energy and anxiety about work. According to McKinsey, 18- to 24-year-olds are concerned with work stability, their mental health, and their financial security. Meanwhile, as Tallo reports, nearly half of Generation Z workers chose leadership as the upskill that interests them most. They want to contribute value.

Encouraging young talent’s passions while alleviating their concerns should be top of mind for leaders. The process requires a perceptive blend of communication, transparency, inspiration, and expectation. It also requires a competitive spirit from all parties. Here are a few ways leaders can nurture young talent to thrive.

Engagement is Key

According to Gallup research, engaged employees deliver better business outcomes no matter the industry, company size, or economic condition. But as Gallup also found, just 35 percent of U.S. employees feel engaged at work.

For leaders, engagement goes beyond saying hello, though that’s a good start. Team members of all ages want a voice at work, so encourage them to use it. Ask employees what they think. Even better, ask how they might handle a project or problem in a leadership position. The question can stimulate unique teaching opportunities and help leaders spot innovative young talent. Either way, the organization benefits.

The engagement process requires leaders to put people first. That’s easy to say, but busy managers often don’t commit the necessary time and energy to get to know team members. It also requires one of the most underrated leadership traits: the ability to listen. Therefore, leaders should internalize three words: Engage, communicate, and listen.

Encourage Upskilling

Skilled employees are empowered employees who benefit their employers. According to PwC, 37 percent of team members with specialized skills are likely to ask for a promotion, and 41 percent are likely to ask for a raise. Further, 45 percent are likely to recommend their company to others.

Of course, today’s emerging skills are decidedly technical. The World Economic Forum suggests employers foster reskilling and upskilling programs in data science, programming, statistics, AI, and other tech disciplines. But the WEF’s Future of Jobs Report also points to the soft skills vital to any industry: analytical and critical thinking, problem-solving, and leadership. This necessary upskilling, the WEF says, will orient people for the jobs of tomorrow, where “the bounty of technological innovation which defines our current era can be leveraged to unleash human potential.”

Leaders with limited upskilling resources can provide forums and online tools to help build skills. These are flexible and relatively inexpensive. Successful companies are learning organizations that expect talent to continue their education on the job.

Leaders are Readers

As a CEO of five different companies during my 30-year career, I consider daily learning to be essential. But learning isn’t confined to classrooms or formal training programs. The best leaders are avid readers.

I try to read two books a month, two newspapers per day (electronically), and countless articles from various sources every week. According to Inc., some CEOs read a book a week. Warren Buffet encourages people to read 500 pages per day. Knowledge “builds up, like compound interest,” Buffet said.

Good leaders share what they’re reading with team members and inspire them to read as well. During the pandemic, some companies started virtual book clubs to serve as educational and team-building tools. This might be the simplest yet most effective way to lead talent in the right direction.

Be a Role Model

Leaders ask team members to learn, set goals, and be ambitious. But are they doing the same? Leaders should know and support their company’s mission and values implicitly — and be able to explain them clearly. They should share what they’re learning, how they’re growing, and what blind spots they’re addressing.

Leaders can encourage team members to take risks by being risk-takers themselves. Being risk-averse at any level signals a low threshold for change, which makes companies stagnant. At the same time, leaders must be transparent and vulnerable about change. The best way to encourage others to grow is by doing it yourself. 

Every job is preparation for the next. A restaurant server is a multi-tasking, customer-service expert who learns to connect with people. A warehouse employee learns the complicated logistics of supply-chain operations. A rookie NFL quarterback trains behind the veteran to make the most of his opportunity. 

But these team members must want to learn. In the Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting movements, employees seemed to be searching for something else, either in or out of the office. Perhaps they’re looking for the best way to connect their talents and passions to the right career.

Leaders can help by engaging young team members, challenging them to grow, and demonstrating their own vulnerability. Moreover, leaders must reinforce their talent’s competitive spirit, an essential attribute of success.