Young CEOs

They want responsibility and meaningful work to do. How can you keep the new kind of young employees motivated?

I know someone who switched jobs to join the Dutch navigation system company TomTom, even though he’d be earning less there. Working for TomTom was more fun to him. That’s my generation. We’re fine with giving up salary in exchange for a job with greater prestige. Our needs are fundamentally different from those of my father’s generation. He had a job because he needed to make money. My peers want a job that has meaning. And variety. And interesting co-workers. And getting to directly contribute to a project.

Among this generation, companies with promising career development opportunities and varying tasks are popular. You won’t find these things in construction, where careers are very simple. That’s why many young construction workers are leaving their companies and opting for a career as a freelancer. Work is no longer a destination, like it was in my father’s days; it’s become a journey. It should offer enjoyment, meaning and a good social network. Preferably all at once.

Young adults’ need for autonomy in what they do is a result of their education. Students nowadays are graded both as part of a team and as individual. And then after graduating they end up in a company where all of a sudden they’re supposed to work for their partner, their older co-worker, their CEO.

What young adults want, essentially, is to be part of it. Google allows every employee to spend 10% to 15% of their time on their own projects. Or consider Ritz-Carlton’s employees, for example. Each of which — high or low — gets their own budget to improve service in whatever ways they see fit, or to appease a customer in case something has gone wrong. For every ‘incident’, they get $2000 to spend. This is a tremendous motivation to work with a truly customer-oriented attitude. Whoever runs into a problem first is the one to solve it.

The problem the younger generation struggles with is the immense number of options. Jobs, companies, college subjects. This can lead to option paralysis. They leave school with the misconception that their entire career depends on decisions they make at the age of 18. But one thing educated people don’t learn, is how to choose. Managing the direction of their career is what they expect their job to do for them. Their assignments, their career, it all has to be plotted out for them by a manager or by the human resources department.


So young adults want two things that seem contradictory. They want guidance, but they also want to have the freedom to give their own input. They want responsibility in their work, but they also want the company’s support for their career development.

What demands does this place on today’s managers? The best course of action for the relatively old board of directors to take now is to involve their young adult employees in the process. Without them, they would never manage to have a reliable perception of the world, the changing social structure, the new technologies, the new ideas. If you can’t understand them, let them join you. Let them into the chain of command. To end the divide between computer illiterates and digital natives. To create role models for other young adults, so they’ll want to continue to be a part of the company.

A board of directors comprising 30% young adults would be ideal, but that would probably be too much to ask. I propose a shadow board. They’ll discuss the same issues and contemplate the same decisions. An internal group of trend watchers at the CEO level. The Young CEOs. And they should agree upon mentorship arrangements. The proper CEO should be a mentor to the young CEO. That’s how you stimulate the transfer of knowledge. Furthermore, the young CEOs would sooner hear complaints or feedback from other young adult employees, which would otherwise never make it to the ears of the higher-ups.

But it all starts with the vacancies. Vacancies are still written like it’s all about a task and maybe a company car. Not many young adults feel compelled by the vacancies on Monsterboard, a listing website for the Dutch job market, even if it’s what they have to settle for. They apply to jobs they don’t really want. Recruiters should stop thinking in terms of tasks and instead try to entice people with career perspectives.

This article was originally published in the Dutch Financial Times in 2011

One response to “Young CEOs”

  1. […] This article was originally published in the Dutch Financial Times in 2011 […]

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