Leadership   //   September 28, 2022  ■  6 min read

Are employers creating a lost generation of managers?

For all the benefits of flexible working, a stark question remains unanswered: How will no or little in-office experience affect our young and future managers?

To some, the opportunities to learn through osmosis, either in the office or at work socials, are already dwindling. If left unchecked, it could potentially lead to a lost generation of young managers in knowledge-worker industries, according to Rafael Guper, COO of e-learning provider UJJI. “Younger employees will become managers with little if any real-world experience,” Guper told WorkLife earlier this month.

“It could be genuinely devastating for many businesses, while the impact may take time to filter through,” Guper said. “Critical to most business’ success is ‘work fundamentals,’ or in other words, soft skills.” These things are not learned at school or university but acquired through work experiences, he stressed.

Others agree that the managers of tomorrow need workplace experience. “I don’t think we have realized how much we learn in the presence of other people,” said Tom Goodwin, author of Digital Darwinism and co-founder of New York transformation consultancy All We Have Is Now. “It’s like another dimension of feedback and hard to explain. School or university teach us nothing about how to operate in the world of work.”

Goodwin recalled how at the start of his career, a work email took three hours to compose as he was unsure about the best practice. He only pressed send after consulting senior colleagues. “We’re not prepared to accept how difficult it is to be excellent at our jobs because we need to learn lots of stuff that isn’t told to us,” he added. “Everything, from the skills we need to learn, to a sense of belonging, to a sense of pride, comes across best in a rich three-dimensional work context.”

Beware a talent bubble

Alexia Pedersen, vp of sales in EMEA at O’Reilly, a company that provides business and tech training resources, likened the situation to driving a car: Passing your test doesn’t make you an accomplished driver — that takes years of experience understanding the nuances of different traffic situations. “It’s the same for management,” she said. “While genuinely successful young managers can provide fresh insights, there are clear benefits to having confidence underpinned by experience.”

New York-based Kris Tait, managing director of digital marketing agency Croud, argued that the job churn stirred up by the Great Resignation is exacerbating and accelerating the problem. Moreover, the talent shortage means employers are taking shortcuts, he observed. “People are being fast-tracked for promotions they’ve not skilled up for,” said Tait. “We are encouraging imposter syndrome and more than likely creating retention issues, but we’re also creating a dangerous talent bubble that will eventually burst.”

Perhaps employers deserve some sympathy. With the war for talent raging and a gloomy economic outlook, investment in developing young workers could be costly with little return. “Because we’re living in an employee-led market, those who are entering the workforce today hold more playing cards than their previous generations,” said Anna Rasmussen, founder and CEO of performance management software company OpenBlend.

She pointed out that these younger employees typically demand more from employers because they can. “As a result, this demographic could become too focused on their own needs and progression rather than those who report to them,” she said.

Rasmussen offered a tip to stop such a worrying scenario from happening. “Creating a culture of performance enablement can help to mitigate this by sending the clear message that the best managers are those who actively care for and take the time to coach their employees,” she added. “These behaviors need to be demonstrated, rewarded, and reinforced.”

Poorly prepared to meet young workersneeds

It’s on employers, then, to engage younger members and show them the rules of the game while also listening and learning, and being — ultimately — flexible. “The ablest managers will end up in companies that can adapt to the future of work,” said Julio Taylor, CEO of Nottingham-headquartered digital marketing agency Hallam. “Most companies are poorly prepared to meet the needs of younger and future workers, not the other way round.”

He added that managers must learn new skills to adapt to the future and, “in all cases, that is the responsibility of employers.” And rather than blaming this present and future management issue on a shift to remote working, progressive organizations should work out how to create social bonding in a work setting. “They should invest their time into evolving how they work and embrace the fact that future generations simply won’t come into your office so you can shower them with ‘culture’ and ‘learning moments,’” said Taylor.

Maybe it makes better sense to work backward: What skills will the managers of tomorrow require? UJJI recently quizzed U.K. talent managers among some of the most innovative start-ups and scale-ups and combined their answers with 500 young employees. The research identified the five skill areas for good managers in the world of modern work as communication, problem-solving, adaptability, leadership, and productivity.

How can these skills be honed if workplace learning is limited? UJII’s Guper suggested traditional “boring corporate training tools and learning and development solutions” fail to inspire workers, whatever their age. He noted that pre-pandemic research from Think With Google showed 80% of Gen Z said YouTube has helped expand their knowledge, and 68% learn new skills via the video platform.

Career development through gamification

Many progressive organizations, cognizant of the risk of a lost generation of managers, are investing in alternative learning solutions. “Some of the world’s largest information technology services and consulting firms are already looking at how gamification, artificial intelligence and scenario-based learning can be integrated into their training programs,” added Guper.

Ryan Wong, CEO of employee analytics and workforce platform Visier, also believes that companies need to invest more in their people in new ways. “In 25 years, work is going to be different, but the future of work is now,” he said. “The future of managing people has not changed, and it needs to, urgently.”

He added that employers’ approaches to managing young people who are joining the workforce haven’t changed enough. “Those who think that will work are just dreaming,” he added.

Wong urged organizations to spend time, money, and effort reevaluating the management operation and include those starting in their careers in the discussion. “Why is it that the old people like to tell the young people what to do when they do not know? There has to be an open conversation. Understanding people data and how that is changing the business outcomes helps,” he said.

Brian Kropp, group vp and chief of research for Gartner’s HR practice, was more optimistic. He countered that there may be a lost generation of managers in the way we think of managers today, but that is not the style of management that will help companies triumph in the future.

“People who have entered the workforce in the last couple of years studied at university in a hybrid-oriented way, so are well adjusted to remote working,” he said. 

Culture of leadership

Compared to older managers who have spent most of their careers working in person and on-site, the younger cohort is ideally positioned to thrive.

“There’s this great irony where younger employees are more comfortable, more understanding, more aware, have a better way to work and a better sense of what work looks like in the world we’re moving into, whereas managers don’t,” Kropp added.

This viewpoint chimed with Robert Ordever, European managing director of workplace culture firm O.C Tanner. “New managers don’t necessarily need an abundance of real-world experience,” he said. Instead, the most successful organizations in the future will adopt a culture in which everyone is considered a leader.

“Such a culture requires every employee to take ownership of their work and sphere of influence,” Ordever said, adding: “The company doesn’t treat leadership as an exclusive club but looks to nurture the potential in everyone.”