In previous generations, employees worked their way up the corporate ladder, gained experience, and after a fruitful career, they retired. There was always a steady supply of experienced executives and seasoned experts in the wings to fill their shoes.
Today, companies in industries ranging from aerospace to consumer packaged goods are watching senior technologists and executives leave through retirement or attrition (including layoffs) in droves. With them, decades of institutional knowledge, experience and judgment also are exiting. According to a 2014 Gallup study, only about half of baby boomers aged 60 are still working; that drops to about one-third for those aged 67-68.
Because companies are losing older, more experienced workers quickly, younger workers are being pushed into management and senior expert roles faster and many times without the longer experience or mentorship infrastructure necessary to be successful.
A study by CareerBuilder found that 38 percent of the workforce already is managed by millennials, those born between the early 1980s and 2000s, and that’s causing a few problems. According to the study, one problem is that the newly minted managers are unprepared for their positions. Further, we can expect that millennials who eventually will leave corporate life to consult will do so without first having the mentoring infrastructure needed to get the practical experience to make them successful free agents.
This experience gap can be particularly costly in industries with long and expensive development cycles. Take the pharmaceutical industry, for example. A new drug submission may come along just a couple times in a career, making it possible today that young pharma executives are flying solo without the benefit of an experienced mentor to help them through this arduous compliance process. Given the race in the pharma industry to be first to market, if a submission is mishandled, a pharma company can miss their market opportunity altogether.
Inexperience also can make young managers risk-adverse. In my experience, when the younger, inexperienced managers are put in positions of authority where risk assessment and risk management are part of the job, such as compliance or governance positions, the natural way to “manage risk” is simply to say “no” to an idea. Aversion to risk stifles creativity and new product development, and doesn’t allow a company to grow at the pace that Wall Street demands.
To remedy the situation, companies should work to create the next generation of experts, or Nexperts. Having worked with many leading companies, nothing beats human interaction and experiential learning to ensure the generational transfer of knowledge.
One company that has done a good job of preparing the next generation of technologists and managers partners its retiring executives with high-performing younger employees with complimentary backgrounds, who shadowed them as they work. These junior technologists experience daily behind the scenes interactions with other technologists and managers across functions and geographies; and discuss the “when, why and how” of key program interventions and decisions. This intentional immersion program helps to impart decades of insight to the younger employees that would have otherwise been delayed or lost upon retirement.
Retiring technologists from this company also participated in a mentoring program in which small groups of promising young employees are asked to participate in monthly learning sessions. At these discussions, senior technologists share case studies of their own past projects and experiences. These discussions are transparent, sharing the personal struggles, unexpected challenges and necessary persistence not easily discerned from the recorded project summary. This enables the young participants to virtually experience “critical behind-the-scenes” workings of successful technologists, which the young technologists can use to accelerate their own lifelong learnings. Importantly, the intentional format of monthly meetings allows a gradual bond to develop between these junior and senior technologists, providing a basis for ongoing discussions and support.
Still, companies finding they have employees desperately in need of mentors shouldn’t despair; effective help is available from the outside and often in the form of a retiree who isn’t interested in the 9-5 grind but still wants to stay engaged.
For example, our Distinguished Fellows program was created for a Fortune 500 CPG company to make mentors and coaches available when needed by email, telephone and in-person contact. Likewise, pharma companies lacking experience when approaching an important regulatory hurdle or stagegate review, can engage our experts to help less experienced executives through business decisions.
Despite attempts by some companies to “train” the next generation of managers and technologists, experience is one of those intangibles that cannot be trained. It must be learned through doing. That’s why pairing younger employees with mentors and coaches helps employees through the immediate need, and also leaves them with the experience they need for the next round.
That’s how the next generation of experts will be born.
About the author: Brad Lawson is the president of YourEncore, a company that helps life sciences, consumer products and food companies solve complex product development and regulatory challenges. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.