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Leading People On

Steve Trautman spends his time engaging people in knowledge transfer. We met over a decade ago, helping grow Microsoft from a small software firm to something much more. We didn't work together, per se, although we had similar roles heading education groups in different parts of the company, each primarily focused on helping new employees succeed.

When we met, we were each in our mid-twenties, without much experience, taking chances in an environment that welcomed risk. We each held giant jobs and yards of rope we rarely hung from. It was refreshing to know that while we were alone in our responsibility, there was someone else an [internal] e-mail away, who might be facing similar situations.

Perhaps our hard work and early successes make us particularly sensitive to comments we hear now about younger workers with their tech-centered, self-centered, short-attention-span, high-maintenance mentality. It isn't uncommon to hear people from even our own generation say, "Kids these days don’t really know how to work." I don't believe that's true.

The issue is more complex.

Take for example, a 20-something recent hire at a cool San Francisco ad agency who expressed he was bored after only four months on the job. He had a masters degree although no significant work experience when hired. By four-months, he expected to be done with the grunt work and moving on to higher level tasks. This left him reconsidering his position everyday.

Is it that he didn't know how to work, or he wanted something more?

This relatively common scenario represents the sort of kids who comprise the coming workforce. Trouble is there aren’t enough of them to fill all the coming boomer vacancies. They have their pick of options and can move on when one doesn't suit them.

What can organizations do to keep younger workers?
In his book Teach What You Know: A Practical Leader's Guide to Knowledge Transfer, Steve identifies five steps to on-boarding that put the young worker in the driver’s seat quickly, improving productivity and reducing attrition.

Step 1: Make connections with people. Provide a peer mentor, and a series of experts to teach the specific skills needed for the job. Give those mentors a clear role to play and skills to play it well. At this same stage advise new employees on how they can find what they need on their own and take personal responsibility for getting themselves up to speed quickly.

Step 2: Develop a complete list of all skills they’ll build in the position. This "stuff you probably don’t yet know" list should be accompanied by insight on how they'll be tested to show they’ve acquired the skill. Will you observe them each week then talk through alternate methods at team meetings, or will customer complaints and annual reviews be the only metric? Then offer specific resources they can use to develop the skills with or without help. They’ll be motivated by the list because it fosters independence and shows them what they can look forward to over time. When they see an interesting path in front of them, they’ll spend less time looking around.

Step 3: Develop a list of foundational information right from the start. Include passwords, vocabulary, current documentation and tools, introductions to key people, and so on. Don’t make them waste time figuring this stuff out.

Step 4: Facilitate a meeting with the new employee, his or her primary mentor and several other key mentors. Explain everyone’s role, talk about the best way to stay in touch, offer advice on how to be successful and present the information from steps 2 and 3. This meeting says, "We’ve been thinking about you, we have a plan to ensure your success." In other words, we’re an organized thoughtful operation and you’re going to appreciate coming to work here.

Step 5: Provide the big picture. Explain key customer expectations (internal and external), how they can measure their own success as well as the success of the team, tell them where they are in the product or service cycle so they know how to contribute and give them a snapshot of their competitors so they know who they’re up against.

In the event you hadn’t noticed yet, every new employee, regardless of age, could benefit from this approach. Young people aren’t asking for something extraordinary. They’re looking for a quick way to do meaningful work in an environment where they’re treated with respect as quickly as possible. Hard to argue with that.

Marcia Conner +