Oswald Letter

Don’t Overlook Younger Workers’ Potential

Young WorkerI’m not much of a golf fan. I certainly can’t play the game and only have a passing interest in it as a spectator. Like the rest of the world, however, I did notice when young Rory McIlroy won the U.S. Open a couple of weeks ago.

It’s amazing to see a 22-year-old at the top of his profession. Can you imagine being 22 and ranked as the third best in your profession as Mr. McIlroy is? But it seems more and more common that young people are reaching towering heights while barely out of their teens — or still in them.

LeBron James was just 18 years old when he declared himself eligible for the NBA draft and quickly became the best player in the NBA, even if he didn’t show it in the recent playoffs.

And if you think this youthful trend is limited to sports, think again. Consider the tools you use every day at work, and you’ll likely find a young entrepreneur behind it. The software I’m using to write this post comes from Microsoft, whose co-founder Bill Gates was just 20 years old when he started the company. The Dell computer and keyboard I’m using come from a company that was started by a 20-year-old — Michael Dell. WordPress — the web software our blogs run on — was started by a 19-year-old, Matt Mullenweg.

Technology is changing the way we live our lives and do our jobs. My 14-year-old was headed out this morning and needed directions to his destination. I told him to do a Google search on his iPhone to get them. Google was started by a couple of guys in their mid-20s, and Steve Jobs was the same age when he started Apple.

So what’s the point? I certainly don’t have a fountain of youth to take you back to your 20s if they’ve already passed you by. I’m not trying to depress you as you relive missed opportunities of your youth.

I’m telling you, as a manager, to harness the power, curiosity, enthusiasm, and intelligence of the 20-somethings in your charge. These young people are capable of making a big impact. They want to contribute. They have ideas. They just need an opportunity. It’s up to you go give it to them.

Many managers want to see the people they manage “pay their dues.” They came up through the ranks before finally getting their big opportunity, so they treat the people they manage the same way.

Well, it’s a different world. The workplace has changed drastically. People don’t stay with one company for a lifetime, as they once did. Wait too long to give them an opportunity, and it’s likely they’ll be long gone before you do. They’ll trade job security and a regular paycheck for the opportunity to chase those dreams — unless you can allow them to have both.

I distinctly remember something my boss said to me when I was in my mid-20s. We were talking about my work and career when she said, “Why are you in such a big hurry? What are you going to do when you’re 30?”

I was a little surprised by her statement. I know it came in the form of two questions, but she was really making a statement about my impatience and my pushing for opportunity at the company.

I responded as many 20-somethings might: “I don’t know what I’ll be doing at 30, but I’ll figure that out then. Right now, I’m really interested in taking on more responsibility and having an opportunity to prove myself.”

I didn’t have a life plan that called for me to hit certain milestones at specific ages. In fact, 30 probably seemed like a lifetime a way. I’d been in the workforce for five years and would have to work that many more just to get to 30 years old. I just knew that I wanted to learn and try new things. I wanted to show what I could do if given the chance.

I think that’s what all talented, high-potential people in their 20s are looking for. They want an opportunity. And if you want to keep them, it’s up to you to give it to them. It’s obvious that young people are capable of achieving so much, if only we’re willing to let them try.

Are you willing to give the 20-somethings that work for you that opportunity?

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