Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

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Federal Coach: Millennials make ideal public servants

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

In conversations with leaders across the federal government, I’ve heard a common question and refrain: “How do I lead and manage the millennial generation? There’s no way I can meet their expectations given that they’ve been reared in an online, on-demand, everyone-gets-a-trophy world.”

In response, my team recently held a conversation with young employees from my organization and a number of older federal supervisors who are taking part in one of our leadership training programs.

What we found mirrored the conclusions of a recent report by IBM’s business consulting arm. The IBM study found that many of the stereotypes regarding millennials are simply wrong. While there are social and cultural differences between different generations, we too often rely on oversimplified ideas about younger workers — and as a result, focus on trying to solve the wrong problems.
When senior leaders objectively think back to earlier points in their own careers, they may realize they were not all that different from millennials. Sure, this new generation is different in any number of superficial ways. But at the end of the day, they are looking for the same opportunities to make a difference, develop their skills and grow into leadership positions, and they want to do so quickly.

Based on our conversations with those in the early stages of their professional development, it’s not that they think they know everything or that they feel entitled to the top job on day one. Rather, they want to hit the ground running, solve problems and have a measurable impact.

This sounds like an ideal public servant. We need more folks who can figure out new ways of meeting the public’s high expectations. At the moment, the government is not doing a great job attracting and retaining members of this generation. Employees under 30, for example, represented just 7 percent of the total federal workforce in 2014, and accounted for 8 percent of departures — a sizable share, since this group is small.

The challenge comes in marshaling the energy and enthusiasm of a still inexperienced workforce, many of whom already have greater responsibility than they would have in the private sector. Federal leaders who are maximizing these younger employees don’t embrace any flashy new management techniques, but follow some basic steps.

For example, effectively leading young professionals requires connecting the dots between their entry-level jobs and future opportunities. While entry-level jobs can be less than glamorous, they contribute to the agency’s mission and to an individual’s professional development.

I spent the early part of my career answering phones on Capitol Hill. Sure, I wanted to be drafting legislation; but fielding calls allowed me to learn about the issues while also teaching me patience, customer service and calm under pressure – skills I frequently draw upon today. Effective supervisors help their employees understand that the experience they’re building will be invaluable later.

In addition, effective supervisors are intentional about providing young employees with formal and informal learning opportunities. Millennials are accustomed to finding any piece of information at a moment’s notice (whether through Google, Facebook or Twitter), and they're able and eager to learn quickly.

One way to help satiate their information appetite is to help set up conversations for them to talk with those who have been there and done that. Encourage your young guns to look for learning opportunities every time they interact with their colleagues, functional experts or senior leaders. And encourage those senior leaders to make the time to answer their questions.

Of course, the best learning often happens on the job. The next time you’re handed a special assignment, asked to submit names for a special task force or simply need to solve a complex management problem, reach out to your younger workers as well as to your experts. They may well bring energy and a fresh perspective, and are just as likely to generate ideas that others with more experience may not have considered. The longer-tenured employees can then determine the best ways of making the new initiatives happen.

And perhaps most importantly, give them what they really want: good, constructive feedback. Regularly sit down with the individuals on your team to process their experiences and to ensure that they are mining the opportunities around them. Ask provocative questions about what they think of decisions made at the agency. See whether they would act differently if confronted with similar issues. Recognize that their experiences now will position them to be better leaders when their time comes.

These are just a few ideas for how to be open, receptive and encouraging to the younger generation. What are you doing to engage your young employees and prepare them for future leadership opportunities? Or if you are one of those up-and-comers ready to make a difference, how are you maximizing your role? Please share your ideas by leaving a comment below or by emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Mar 17, 2015 at 1:37 PM

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