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Leading Gen Y: Lessons Learned Along the Way


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By Holly Moore

Several weeks ago, I watched our young staff at Growing Leaders — the nonprofit organization I help lead — host a large event for educators. It was rewarding to see them embody our core values, serving with excellence. I smiled inside as I reflected on learning to lead them and modeling the way. It’s been one of my great joys to invest in the college interns and twenty-somethings on our team. It has also been one of my most significant challenges. They’ve forced me to rethink how I communicate, coach, and lead.

Generation Y (young people born between 1984 and 2002) is a growing part of today’s workforce. To position your ministry or nonprofit for continued success you must recruit, hire, train, and mentor these emerging leaders. But you can’t do it the way you’ve always done it.

They grew up in a culture that exposed them to a lot of information and experiences, yet allowed them to be relationally lazy. They’re eager to discover their life purpose and do meaningful work aligned with their strengths and passions, but struggle with discipline and tenacity for job success. However, this emerging generation can add great value to our teams if we engage them and become leaders they can trust.

Here’s what I’ve learned about how to lead them well:

Be honest and authentic

Generation Y wants honesty. We aren’t doing them a favor if we only offer praise, but don’t give specific feedback on how they can improve. It’s important to offer continuous feedback. If we wait or overlook things short of our standard of excellence, it causes frustration in us and under performance in our young staff. My team knows I will point out where they need to improve. Praise then holds more weight, because they know I only say it if I mean it.

Explain why

 In our organization, the youngest team members are responsible for some pretty un-glamorous tasks. They ship resources, stock inventory, do data entry, and other administrative tasks. So I work hard to make sure they see how shipping a resource to a school impacts the development of hundreds of children. If I slow down and explain the “why,” I get much better buy-in from the team.

Help them discover their strengths

The next generation is hungry to use their skills and passions in a career. One of the most significant things I do as a leader is help our young staff discover and exercise their strengths and gifts. Too often, veteran leaders don’t want to give up control of projects and tasks. But we’re only hurting ourselves in the long run. Gen Y won’t stay in situations where they aren’t allowed to grow and expand their wings.

This past year, I made a decision to let two young team members be the primary leaders on an important project. Did they make mistakes? Yes. Did it take longer to complete? Yes. Would I do it again? Yes. They learned valuable lessons about their strengths and weaknesses and are stronger for the process.

Connect poor decisions with real consequences

 Several years ago, I began to notice an intern’s bad work habits. This was his first post-college work experience. I talked with him, giving specific examples of behavior that needed to change, and casting vision for how he could contribute to the team. But he didn’t take my words to heart, and refused to make changes. So, I fired him. He was stunned. I don’t think he thought that could ever happen. Years later, he reached out to the president of our organization and said that experience was extremely valuable. He learned a lesson about work ethic that stuck with him, and he is more prepared for ministry.

Provide intentional learning opportunities

 We put a high value on personal growth, and I think that is especially appreciated by our youngest team members. Every Monday, we meet over lunch discussing topics to build a strong, educated, and equipped team. Our interns are expected to read specific books. We set times for them to meet individually with board members or other leaders in the community. They take trips with our team to expose them to new experiences and people. Every minute we invest in their personal growth is time well spent.

This emerging generation is full of passion and possibility. Let’s learn to lead them well.

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Holly Moore is the vice president of Growing Leaders, a nonprofit organization providing leadership training for next generation leaders and the organizations who hire them. This post is an excerpt from the 2014 Summer edition of Outcomes Magazine.

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