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Uncommon sense: Why the twenty-somethings you work with are more than just a marketing target

By Jon Bains

July 26, 2013 | 7 min read

"There are so many random kids in here who have nothing better to do than complain, why should we give them a platform?" – Anonymous CEO

Don't marginalise your young talent

Whilst this is a bit of a rant, it addresses something that is fundamental when considering how to help 'legacy businesses' deal with the new world.

Where do I get my insight from? Well for the most part it stems from the institutionalised corporate fail that is the job spec.

This is how it’s always done, therefore it’s ok. That's the job right?

Most businesses cynically hire individuals to be part of a continuum. There is no boat rocking, and there is certainly no question that what they have been hired to do is the right move.

Accordingly most jobs, while the specs may request it, actually require the absence of critical thought. Creativity is suppressed as individuals are expected to morph into good corporate citizens (drones) that, willingly or unconsciously, acquiesce to the way things are done.

Then there is the c-suite; often but not always they have proved their worth by doing what others told them to do, hence putting themselves in a position to lead. The problem is that by the time they have achieved absolute power they run the risk of having lost any tangible connection with what the business actually does or at least how it does it! This abstraction is necessary to a certain extent as businesses grow – after all you can't be involved with everything all the time!

However, is this right?

Really? I suspect most directors of startups would disagree.

Corporate culture is somewhat problematic these days: zero hour contracts, outsourcing and the dehumanising and insecure experience that is a full time job mean that employees just don't care any more. To them it's just a job. If everybody is treated as a 'resource' as opposed to an individual eventually they will have as much respect for their employer as they have for them. Therein lies the problem - do people really want to wait 20 years before they get listened to?

Not only that but the whole resourcing, hiring, (screening?) process has radically altered. “Thank you for your references. Now we must run a background check. Please give us your Facebook login." And even going behind your back asking your LinkedIn connections about you. It’s got to the point that it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if the recruitment world is negotiating a licensing agreement with the NSA at the moment.

In the US, in the startup sector, it actually makes more sense to pay millions (or in Instagram’s case a billion) to secure talent. Growing talent is seemingly out of the question.

For the rest of us the killing joke is that often the talent is already there – possibly just ignored or shunned. In both cases it is marginalised and employees are afforded no direct method of upward communication or self expression.

The blame for this is placed squarely at the feet of the young. They don't know anything, they are a threat. Vive l'age middle and the status quo.

At 42 it’s hard not to be a hypocrite, and frankly it freaks me out when I meet folk like me, when I was 23. I was young, arrogant, didn’t care about old structures and embraced this entirely new inter-web thing that opened up communications beyond the traditional gatekeepers. That was 1994. I got lucky in that many 'mature' folk pointed me in various directions - I learned about advertising, then acquired an overall understanding of marketing and all its associated disciplines. I have subsequently moved beyond to appreciate all the underlying business logic consequently I feel honour bound to reciprocate - even if I still feel 23 (or 13) myself.

So here is the deal - they may not know why things are the way they are, they may not know how to make something new themselves necessarily, but those ‘kids’ and their inherent behavior is well worth paying attention to. When listened to, at the right time, they have the potential to evaluate your new service offering. They will most likely understand the touch points on how to communicate it, and given the opportunity to shine their instinct will be better.

Dream? Nightmare? Or perhaps opportunity?

Listening internally within any business is hard; silos are built, boxes are drawn and escalation paths guarded. However if you stopped and actually smelled the coffee you might be surprised. Insight comes from everywhere - and that’s a good thing, right?

So tips for the top

1. Listen to your own crew first. If you are big enough you probably have a sufficiently broad demographic. You could end up spending loads of hard cash researching something your business already knows.

2. Scary HR thought: add KPIs based on the metric of ‘above and beyond’. Reward Input. Of course tempered by the value the long timers added to the bright spark. ACDC said 'Who made who? Who made you?' Wise words. Fear of change is the enemy, embrace to win!

3. Education, Education, Education. Surely it sinks in - at least if you beat somebody over the head long enough. Actually it really doesn't. If there is no risk then there is no motivation to change. However, change the rules, take a bonus away, and more to the point, reward progression not legacy. I know many who have thirty plus years' experience in a sector that has been massively disrupted, and they would and could add substantial value if they were correctly motivated.

4. Engage with that old chestnut uncommon sense that says 'play to their strengths not to their weaknesses'. One of my favourite fallacies is the efficiency of straight up matrix organisations. Most use it as an excuse to not learn the disciplines vertically in preference to having the product knowledge horizontally, which is exactly the opposite of what they are supposed to achieve. Encouraging a solid understanding in every direction be it individual products, channels or other disciplines can only be a good thing - however that manifests.

You never know but this might actually end up with everybody on an equal footing for the good of the business. That can't be right. 'Human sacrifice, cats and dogs living together, Mass Hysteria!' as a very wise Ghostbuster once said.

5. Ok, laugh: suggestion box. But NOT anonymised. Like the modern web, make it open, make it true (and make it digital). If anonymity is required then I suspect your company is so terribly…. er… disrupted that you really need to rethink your entire internal business strategy. Encourage thought, reward effort, coach and nurture those who participate. If you really need to flag those who don't pay enough attention to those TPS reports then you need to look to yourself.

Ultimately it comes down to your own confidence - play with the kids or push them away - you call it and reap what you sow.

Jon Bains is a partner in digital consultancy Atmosphere

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