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Leading Gen Y and The Lessons Learned By Holly Moore

Several weeks ago, I watched our young staff at Growing Leaders — the nonprofit organization I help lead — host a significant event for educators. It was rewarding to see them embody our core values, serving with excellence. I smiled inside, reflecting on learning to lead them and modeling the way. Investing in the college interns and twenty-somethings on our team has been one of my great joys. It has also been one of my most significant challenges. They’ve forced me to rethink how I communicate, coach, and lead.

Generation Y (young people born between 1984 and 2002) is a growing part of today’s workforce. You must recruit, hire, train, and mentor these emerging leaders to position your ministry or nonprofit for continued success. But you can’t do it the way you’ve always done it.

They grew up in a culture that exposed them to much information and experiences yet allowed them to be relationally lazy. They’re eager to discover their life purpose and do meaningful work aligned with their strengths and passions but struggle with discipline and tenacity for job success. However, this emerging generation can add significant value to our teams if we engage them and become leaders they can trust.

Here’s what I’ve learned about how to lead them well:

Be honest and authentic.

Generation Y wants honesty. We aren’t doing them a favor if we only offer praise but don’t give specific feedback on how they can improve. It’s essential to provide continuous feedback. If we wait or overlook things short of our standard of excellence, it causes frustration in us and underperformance in our young staff. My team knows I will point out where they need to improve. Praise holds more weight because they know I only say it if I mean it.

Explain why.

 Our organization’s youngest team members are responsible for some pretty un-glamorous tasks. They ship resources, stock inventory, data entry, and other administrative tasks. So, I work hard to ensure they see how shipping a resource to a school impacts the development of hundreds of children. If I slow down and explain the “why,” I get much better buy-in from the team.

Help them discover their strengths.

The next generation is hungry to use their skills and passions in a career. One of the most significant things I do as a leader is help our young staff discover and exercise their strengths and gifts. Too often, veteran leaders don’t want to give up control of projects and tasks. But we’re only hurting ourselves in the long run. Gen Y won’t stay in situations where they can’t grow and expand their wings.

This past year, I let two young team members be the primary leaders on a substantial project. Did they make mistakes? Yes. Did it take longer to complete? Yes. Would I do it again? Yes. They learned valuable lessons about their strengths and weaknesses and are more vital for the process.

Connect poor decisions with real consequences.

 Several years ago, I noticed an intern’s lousy work habits. This was his first post-college work experience. I talked with him, giving specific examples of behavior that needed to change and casting a vision for how he could contribute to the team. But he didn’t take my words to heart and refused to make changes. So, I fired him. He was stunned. I don’t think he thought that could ever happen. Years later, he reached out to the president of our organization and said that experience was precious. He learned a lesson about the work ethic that stuck with him and is more prepared for ministry.

Provide intentional learning opportunities.

 We put a high value on personal growth, which our youngest team members especially appreciate. Every Monday, we meet over lunch, discussing topics to build a strong, educated, and equipped team. Our interns are expected to read specific books. We set times for them to meet individually with board members or other leaders in the community. They take trips with our team to expose them to new experiences and people. Every minute we invest in their personal growth is time well spent.

This emerging generation is full of passion and possibility. Let’s learn to lead them well.


Holly Moore is the vice president of Growing Leaders, a nonprofit organization providing leadership training for next-generation leaders and the organizations who hire them. This post is an excerpt from the 2014 Summer edition of Outcomes Magazine.


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