Be a Mentor, Not a Boss: Welcoming Younger Workers to the Agency

Countless articles discuss coaching and mentoring, work attitudes and differing expectations related to Millennials versus older workers. This aspect of the hiring process is often given short shrift in a smaller business, and smaller ad agencies and marketing firms are no exceptions.

We've shared advice in the past suggesting that young people fresh out of school need to approach a new job with an attitude of willingness, a desire to learn, and sensitivity to culture and politics within the agency.

This time, we direct attention to the flip side of that coin—how existing employees and managers can welcome young hires and help them become valued members of the agency team.

Millennial Expectations

To many younger people entering the workforce, workplace hierarchies are antiquated and meaningless. Many graduates arrive expecting to immediately be given large amounts of responsibility, important assignments, and authority to make decisions without management’s okay. This scenario is highly unlikely unless the graduate is launching his or her own startup. This means young people going to work for an established firm in an entry-level position will have to spend at least a few months on the bottom rungs of the career ladder.

But… they’ll accept this more readily when you make it clear they don’t need to stay there. Employers want new hires to grow quickly to the level of their own expectations, because that will help the agency as much as individuals’ career goals. Create an orientation and onboarding plan; train and mentor new employees in agency processes, procedures and best practices; and reinforce agency values and esprit de corps. As quickly as seems reasonable, based on their learning curves and skills, start giving new hires important work. Put them on teams serving high-value clients. Keep mentoring and guiding them, but let them see you want them to move up as much as they want to advance.

Leadership, Not Management

Younger workers tend to disrespect hierarchical, top-down management. They prefer a more egalitarian environment, where everyone meets as equals. Conflict arises when senior workers with more experience and know-how come face-to-face with younger workers who want to be treated as equal to senior-level employees—to be a peer “without paying their dues.”

You can screen for overweening ego as you interview, but even with personality testing, it’s still possible to hire someone who thinks they are too brilliant to start at the bottom and work their way up. It’s important for senior employees to recognize youthful confidence for what it is. Try not to smack down young whippersnappers for overstepping invisible boundaries, or expecting respect and trust they have not “earned.”

Acknowledge that younger people have different ideas and perspectives that can lead to innovation. Listen and respond to these young voices with an open mind. Show you are willing to embrace that egalitarian energy and make use of it. By being respectful, you model the behavior you want them to exhibit to their co-workers.

Again, give young hires responsibility and autonomy to get the job done as soon as you feel they are ready. Make sure they are comfortable with that responsibility, set boundaries where management approvals are required, and assure them you are available if they need a little guidance or just a listening ear. Don’t hover, but check in frequently enough to let them know you are interested and want to know how they are doing.

Principals and managers can use this management style for all employees, not just the youngest. People like knowing that leaders care enough to ask how things are going and keep tabs on work without actually micro-managing.

Values and Purpose

Almost equal to training and mentoring, younger employees put great weight on work that has purpose. Yes, they have career goals; yes, they want to make a good salary; yes they want responsibility and a voice in the direction of the business. But doing work that matters is a motivating factor in whether employees leave within a year or two… or stay to become your agency’s future leaders.

Hire for values alignment. If you already have a culture that gives back through employee participation in pro bono and community work, the new hire will feel good about getting involved with current agency efforts and causes. Also allow younger workers to suggest new ways to add purpose to their work lives, from suggesting clients they would enjoy working with, to creating new outreach programs for recruiting or community projects.

Purpose and aligned values makes your agency extra “sticky,” improving retention and strengthening the entire agency culture.

Goals and Engagement

You can help younger employees with their career plans in one key way that also greatly benefits the agency: tie individual goals to agency planning. As early as reasonable (around the time a new hire’s probationary period expires), meet with the person to draw up a career planning and goal setting document. Every employee should contribute to the agency’s growth; harnessing individual goals to agency objectives helps the employee feel vested in agency success, as well as reinforcing that their goals are important to agency management.

It’s also important to meet commitments made during the hiring negotiations. If you promised a probationary review with a raise at six months, do that. If you claimed you do annual reviews, don’t neglect this. If you promised regular feedback, set up a schedule and stick to it. Earning trust cuts both ways.