Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Time to Fast-Track Development of Our Younger Professionals?

Staffing is the big issue these days in the A/E industry, of course. Firms are having a hard time finding enough qualified people to handle the burgeoning workload. Demographics suggest the problem won't be ending any time soon, barring a significant economic downturn. Recruiting has surpassed selling as the top competitive issue.

Obviously, staff retention is critically important as well. Turnover is highest among younger professionals. The usual complaint is that the millennial generation is less loyal, changing jobs an average of every two to three years. But lack of loyalty isn't the real problem, various studies have found, it's the perceived lack of opportunity. Our younger colleagues expect to advance more quickly in their careers than us baby boomers did, and will readily change jobs for a better opportunity.

And that's a problem for the A/E industry. I don't have any data to support this, but my observation is that our industry is generally slower to promote professionals than other industries. We probably overvalue seniority. Many industries promote people into project management in half the time of the typical A/E firm—and the projects are arguably just as complicated (or more so). I've met "senior" engineering managers in other industries, leading groups of 50-100 people, who are in their early 30s. That's a rarity in our industry.

My point isn't so much that we risk losing our younger professionals to other industries (although that's clearly a threat). I call out the difference to suggest that we may be underestimating the potential of our top millennial performers, and that could be a significant factor in the higher turnover. My own experience surveying and working with young professionals in A/E firms has revealed that they commonly feel they are being denied deserved opportunities to take on greater responsibilities and increased autonomy.

Of course, I frequently hear older managers complain about the younger generation's "unrealistic" expectations. These managers put in their time and "paid their dues" to achieve their current status. Why do the younger generations think it should be different for them?

Well, maybe because the times are different. There's a shortage of experienced technical professionals, and millennials will soon comprise half the workforce. Some analysts predict that in the next several years we'll witness an accelerated exodus of boomers, who have been hanging around beyond retirement age at a record rate. That could dramatically shift the generational makeup of the workforce in relatively short order.

So shouldn't we be considering how to fast-track the development of our younger professionals for the long-term welfare of our firms? I think we should. Here are some suggestions for doing that:

Clarify career paths. Young professionals want to know specifically what it takes to advance. Yet many firms don't make it easy to determine the steps for career growth. Position descriptions typically describe basic qualifications, but the means of obtaining those qualifications are often less clear. The best firms have established a professional development curriculum that specifies what training and experience are needed at each stage of one's career.

Rethink experience requirements for advancement. Experience matters, but employee development doesn't always follow the straight line progression that job requirements sometimes imply. Think it takes 6-8 years to qualify as a project manager? Some younger professionals are ready much earlier. Experience thresholds are better used as guidelines than as requirements. Give flexibility to your best performers.

Combine coaching with training. While many firms attempt to introduce mentoring opportunities for younger workers, most ignore coaching. There's an important distinction, the primary one being that coaching is real-time, as work is being performed (the table below highlights other differences):

Studies show that performance improvement following training skyrockets when it is combined with coaching. That only makes sense: People learn more by doing than listening. Plus coaching provides the immediate feedback and reinforcement needed to dramatically improve performance. Why then is it rare? Because it takes a significant investment of a leader's time. But it's an investment that can yield a worthwhile return.

Learn to let go and delegate. Many managers struggle to delegate work adequately, and the next generation of managers suffers for it. Delegation is challenging because it takes time to do it right, it means giving up some control, and the next person likely won't do the job the way you would (or as well at first). But delegating appropriately is critical for developing your young stars. Give them as much as they can handle, but not without proper oversight. 

Regularly seek their input. Senior firm leaders often make the mistake of not soliciting advice and feedback from their younger professionals. This neglects a valuable perspective, whether the issue is project-related or a matter of corporate strategy. Millennials see things differently, which is precisely why you want to talk with them. Their ideas may not yet be seasoned by experience, but they are often fresh and insightful—and perhaps just the right answer for the situation. When you get them involved in important matters, both you and they ultimately benefit.

Take them along. One of the simplest steps in helping your younger professionals develop is also one of the best: Invite them to join you in your work. I recognize there are limits to this practice given the importance of keeping people (and especially junior staff) billable. But consider this personalized training. Visiting a prospective client? Take a rising star along. Negotiating a big contract? Invite a young colleague. Holding an executive session to discuss your strategic plan? Well, you get the idea.