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Sadie Visick - Leading Gen Z – Embracing the Opportunity blog

Author's job title: Executive & Team Coach, Sadie Visick Consulting

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Leading Gen Z – Embracing the Opportunity

Written by Sadie Visick

Sadie Visick.

Sadie Visick, Executive & Team Coach, Sadie Visick Consulting

It was Sky, the Wellbeing Unicorn, that made me realise the younger generation were truly of a different stripe.

You have to remember that when I entered the workplace, you didn’t talk about life outside work unless it was sport, and you were very careful about who you asked for help, because it was generally seen as a sign of weakness. 

Over the past 30+ years, I’ve welcomed the increased focus on empathic management and wellbeing. But Sky was something else again, arriving in response to an internal survey that found the organisation where I was working needed to demonstrate it cared more about its employees. 

If someone was observed as having a difficult time, then Sky – a pastel-coloured soft toy - would mysteriously arrive on their desk with a note of support and some fruit gums. My younger colleagues seemed genuinely touched to receive a visit from Sky, whereas I would have hated it.   But that’s just me, and maybe my generation! And, as you’ll be aware, there are differences…

Who are Gen Z?

Generation Z (or Zoomers) are usually considered to be those born between the mid-90s and around 2012, so in the workplace they are the cohort who are a year or two under 30. They are on track to make up a third of the workforce by 2030.

What’s their world been like so far? 

Gen Z cannot remember a time before the collapse of communism and the September 11 attacks. They grew up during the global financial crisis and the decade-long recovery that followed, watching parents lose jobs and older siblings having to move back home. They have seen increases in non-discretionary expenses such as housing, transport and food, and a dramatic rise in student debt.

They are digital natives, born after the advent of the internet, amidst the rise of social media and smartphones, in a world with on-demand streaming and one-click online purchasing. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on their education and early experiences of the workplace, with remote and then hybrid models becoming the norm, and a reduced opportunity to observe how to operate successfully in a professional environment. 

What are they like?

At this point, I am inserting a big caveat here that of course a generation with some defining characteristics is comprised of individuals with plenty of their own personal ones! 

The negative Gen Z stereotype is that they are overly tech-dependent, avoid face-to-face interaction and are harder to reach because of their short attention span. Research suggests they are more focused on money and salary than Millennials, and expect to change jobs every couple of years. They also have an entrepreneurial spirit, with side hustles (which used to be called moonlighting!), and a desire to start their own business. 

Gen Zs report high rates of mental health struggles - according to one survey, 55 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds have received a diagnosis or treatment for a mental illness. They tend to be accepting of diverse identities, value inclusivity and equality, and are heavily influenced by (and often take part in) social and political movements. However, it is a nuanced picture – research shows that Gen Z boys and men are more likely than older generations to believe that feminism has done more harm than good, and one in four UK males aged 16 to 29 believe it is harder to be a man than a woman. 

What do they bring to the workplace? 

Their tech savvy attributes allow them to adapt quickly to new systems and processes, and they thrive on collaboration and connection, enjoying constant communication and cross-functional cooperation via digital platforms. 

Their entrepreneurial spirit means they can be great innovators and are keen to be given a chance to influence and shape their area of work. They also desire purpose-driven work, and want to make a meaningful impact in their careers.

According to research by Deloitte, while money and salary do matter to Gen Z, they also value work-life balance, flexible hours, perks and benefits - and expect employers to provide these in addition to their salary. 

Richard Barnwell, a Partner at financial services provider BDO, is responsible for pastoral care, performance management and career development in the governance, risk and conduct advisory business. He has led a number of ‘early careers’ initiatives, including the introduction of a reverse mentoring scheme.

Says Richard: “They are a super-talented bunch, much further up the curve in terms of their ability to go away and absorb technical information compared with how things were when I started work 20 years ago. They are also really alive to ESG and corporate sustainability.”

Resilience can also be an issue, with a sense that problems in their personal lives are more likely to lead to absences, and a need for the employer to step into more of a ‘supportive parent’ role. The pandemic and more remote working have also created new challenges: 

“They need to be able to manage senior client relationships, but they’ve not had the same opportunities to see behaviours being role modelled. For example, sitting across from a client, walking through something that’s gone wrong in their organisation, and so developing the skills to have those difficult conversations.”

Perhaps we are at a key inflection point in the evolution of work. Many of us started at the bottom of the ladder, learned how things worked, and did dull but necessary tasks as a way to learn more valuable professional skills. However, some of these rites of passage no longer exist, with technology and automation taking on repetitive or data-driven tasks.

Says Richard: “Some folk are struggling to see what their career path might be. In the past they’d be asked to review a load of documents, for example meeting minutes, reports and procedures, and draw out conclusions. Increasingly generative AI can do that – but we’ll still need a skilled person to review what it produces. So we need to think about how can they develop those skills if they haven’t had that experience.”

What does this mean for leaders? 

Given the workforce is shrinking, the competition for talent in the future is likely to be fierce.  Leaders will need to think about how they align their organisation’s values and mission with Gen Z’s sense of purpose and commitment to societal challenges such as sustainability, climate change and social justice. 

We will have to redesign jobs so that they attract and engage Gen Z, and find ways to ensure they feel heard and valued, creating opportunities for collaboration and growth, including mentoring and coaching. 

Alex Holmes is Head of Learning & Development at qualifications provider AQA, which has run early careers programmes for the past three years. The cohorts - a mix of apprentices and graduates - have been recruited with a focus on social mobility and ED&I, and work in a diverse range of roles. 

“I’ve definitely noticed marked differences between generations. Gen Z don’t want to be closely managed and would generally much prefer to work from home. As they may choose to log on and work in the evening or at the weekend, the traditional work/life balance approach doesn’t work for them.”

Another aspect of Gen Z that Alex highlights is that they don’t intend to stay in the same job for more than two to three years, and want to know what the employer is going to do to make them more competitive in the jobs market so they are ready for their next step up. 

“We’ve had to be really mindful of the needs of the whole multi-generational workforce, for example that they learn in different ways. More established colleagues often like face to face, while our recent recruits prefer their learning to be more self-paced and a blended approach, with signposting to materials like blogs and TED talks.

AQA’s leadership has recognised that it needs to be clear on expectations and provide guidance on relational aspects of work or behaviours that young people would previously just have soaked up if they had been physically in an office with more experienced colleagues. This may include, for example, office and email etiquette, or committing to attending meetings and deadlines.

“Leaders also have to reflect on their own expectations. You can’t just expect what you say to happen – for example that people must be in the office two days a week. If Gen Z don’t see why something is important, there’s a risk they will just disconnect. And they are unlikely to be impressed if you tell them that you spent your early working life doing all the photocopying!”

“I think the most important thing is to be open-minded as they have so much to offer – a different level of energy and innovation, and a different mindset around how they want the world to be. When you drop the hierarchy and bring them into discussions, you get real diversity of thought and solutions and ideas that wouldn’t have been possible without them,” says Alex.

So, are you up for embracing the Gen Z opportunity? It means creating space by giving up some of our beliefs about how things should be, so that Gen Z can find their place and thrive. If we put more energy into making this work than resisting change, we’re more likely to leave our organisations stronger than we found them. And hasn’t that always been an important part of our roles as leaders?

Join Sadie at our next Online Workshop

If you would like to hear more from Sadie, we are delighted that she is chairing our Embracing Change: Leading Gen Z Online Workshop on Wednesday 12 June from 10.00 to 15.30.


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