Don’t underestimate youth

#Lesson 7: In this lesson, the day one entry-level employee was better than a whole team of senior execs.

I clearly remember Lionel once saying: “If you don’t listen to youth, then you are going deaf.” But it actually wasn’t until a few years later that his message about listening to young employees truly sank in.

As one gets older (and I definitely talk from experience here), one should become wiser, otherwise you have wasted a lot of years. However being wiser does not mean that you know it all, by any means. And young, inexperienced but very bright people may not know much yet but often they will know more than you expect. We just forget to ask them. Which I did once, but never since.

A fair few years on from my early days being mentored by Lionel we were holding a company conference, some two hours out of London. It was a great success and at the conference we announced a new project. We were moving into new sector, one we were sure had huge growth potential. But one area we were struggling with was a name for a club that was a key part of this project. We had put the challenge, linked to a financial incentive, to the executive team to think of a name, but as yet this hadn’t yielded any winning suggestions.

I was leaving this conference, and had just got in the car, when there was a knock at the window. I rolled down the window and standing there was a very young sales executive who had recently joined the company. “Mr Thomas,” she said. “If you are driving back to London could you give me lift?” I didn’t know what to say, other than yes.

As we got on our way she began talking about her life: why she joined us, her aspirations, how hard it was to get a job. At every interview she’d been told to come back when she had more experience. How the hell do you get experience, she said, if no one will give you a job in the first place? As she talked, I realised we had hired a very bright and dynamic young lady.

As we approached London she asked me whether she could ask a question and I said sure. “Why does this company only think new ideas can come from older, experienced managers,” she challenged. “Why is that?”

I asked her what she meant. She told me the whole company was talking about the new club and the executive’s bonus for whoever came up with the right name. “Well,” she said. “I have a name for the club.” I asked her to tell me, and so she did.

I said nothing for 10 minutes. This young lady had done what not one senior executive had. She had nailed it, and I think I was too embarrassed to admit it. I thought back to Lionel’s advice and how right he was on this occasion. The next day at the executive meeting I told the team, who unanimously agreed it was right. She won the prize and I learnt a lesson. Don’t ignore youth, if you do – then do so at your peril. Don’t ever get carried away thinking because you are older, senior, wiser, etc. that you know it all, because you don’t.

The following week we set up a new committee (a think tank) – the only criteria for being on that committee was that you had to be under 25 years old.

So open your ears, and your mind, and open yourself up to the potential that could be lying untapped in your business. Or you might find the enthusiasm and insights of youth fall on deaf ears and your business misses out because of it.

If you could use some help getting the most out of your staff and developing your company why not let me help you during our five-day mentoring retreat in Tuscany this October?

This is an article series based on lessons learned from my great mentor Lionel Morely Joel. Read the first article to understand the background and then dip in and out of the lessons as you please.