FAISAL BUTT: Why listening to your young employees could mean the difference between success and failure

People are often quick to dismiss their inexperienced workers' views out of hand, says Faisal Butt. But in most cases, they're wiser than you realise.

by Faisal Butt
Last Updated: 28 Aug 2014

When I was growing up in South Asia young people were seen and not heard. The generational divide was palpable, and for a young, ambitious entrepreneur with unconventional – often controversial – ideas, patriarchal Pakistan was far from the ideal environment to sow and harvest my entrepreneurial seeds.

It was only when I moved to the U.S., and later the UK, that I saw family businesses give youth a chance. Parents empowered their children by giving them capital to build businesses, and those businesses seemed to flourish while the ones back home stagnated.

It’s seeing that dichotomy between the two cultures which made me realise that the younger generations are the real innovators of our societies. As someone rejected countless times for my youth during my early twenties while trying to find my own footing, today as a thirty-something with a firm foothold in the Mayfair VC scene, I believe the three generations in the workplace – Baby Boomers, Generation X-ers, Generation Y-ers – need to operate under a structure that allows the younger generations to be heard.

These Gen Y-ers have an in-depth understanding of ideas, morals and concepts that you may not know exist. When looking at the world from this perspective, the future is indeed behind you, not ahead of you.

Vive la révolution

Although each generation is different, a result of their upbringing, each start adolescence as dreamers and revolutionaries. Baby Boomers were behind the counterculture revolution of the Sixties and early Seventies where young people sought to change the world for the better. Yet – as they grew up, they quickly became less idealistic and more motivated by money and status.

Generation X-ers, my generation, were the first ‘latch-key kids’ where both parents worked and they were forced to become self-sufficient. In adolescence, X-ers were called unambitious ‘shoe gazers’, but as mature adults their ability to work independently has transformed them into entrepreneurs and top managers.

Generation Y-ers were brought up during the boom years of the Nineties and early 2000s by their successful Baby Boomer parents who – with their counterculture ideologies – taught their children they could achieve anything they put their minds to. Their revolution is to improve work/ life balance. They seek rich experiences rather than just riches. To them, work is more about learning and being challenged than money.

But they are also the first generation to grow up with Wi-Fi, laptops, smart phones and tablets – all the tech that has made working remotely and flexibly possible. Their office is a café in Shoreditch where they can combine business with leisure. New terms like ‘bleisure’ not only reflect this intermingling of these hitherto separate domains but also showcases the ‘we can make the rules as we go’ tone that’s a constant undercurrent in everything they do.

Each generation has a revolution, and then they become settled in the new world they’ve helped to create, leaving the next generation to initiate subsequent revolts. For this reason, even though decision-making sits at the top of the generation tree, it’s my belief the real power is with the guys at the bottom.
They’ve always been the trend setters, whether it’s the ‘ban the bomb’ hippies or the Tinder dating Y-ers. Not so long ago, I was with a young entrepreneur talking about a company. I was shocked when he told me they didn’t have an innovative team because they came out of LOVEFiLM. ‘They’re all a bit old school,’ he said. In his view, 2002 was ancient.

The point is, young people are at the forefront of everything new; they are the early adopters – and the things they’re playing with right now are likely to become the norms of the future. They know which way the wind is blowing and if the rest of us are to maintain our competitive edge, we’d better start listening.

Perceptions need to change

While, in many family businesses, parents embrace their children’s ideas, in the corporate world there are big generational gaps between the top of the tree and the bottom. Those gaps need to be bridged.
Trouble is, those in the position to bridge that gap, the X-ers, want to be associated with people more senior to them and neglect the younger generation. They’re too busy trying to climb up the ladder that they forget networking down is just as important as networking up. In my view, tomorrow's leaders are those who can successfully straddle the generational ladder, both up and down.

It’s not entirely Gen X-er's fault; the corporate culture is also to blame. I don’t think corporates encourage enough intergenerational interaction. Board meetings exclude junior staff, they are never asked their opinion at a strategic level, and there is still this ‘coffee boy’ stereotype for young people in the workplace. In my opinion, this culture has created a layer of pride that stops most X-ers from asking young people for advice or delivering their ideas to the Boomers.

I was guilty of doing the same. My investment thesis used to be to back experienced people in their thirties or forties and I overlooked the younger guys. But that’s all about to change.  In fact, I've been having a weekly catch up with one of my team members (he's only 24), a session in which I just listen to his ideas and advice on running my business. After two of these sessions, I've realised never again to underestimate the wisdom that comes with youth – their insights are so fresh and untarnished.

Give youth a chance to shine

Using the lessons from those family businesses I saw flourish, I’ve realised the successful guys in business will be those who bridge the gap between the nimble, creative, idea-infused Y-ers and the Boomers who have the power and capital to make things happen. Indeed, the next team I’m backing are Y-ers, bordering on Z-ers. They lack the experience of my other management teams but they’re exceptionally bright and have aptitude, which is priceless. I know I can show them the ropes and they’ll pick things up fast. I’ll build a more seasoned team around them to bring experience on board, but they will remain the leaders/ CEOs of the company.

As a business leader, empowering the Y-ers isn't just about being inclusive, it is a sound business practice and a proven strategy to build your future leadership pipeline today. Giving the youth a role in decision-making will offer the challenges and sense of ownership they need to see your business as a career instead of a stopgap. Get them to shadow you, invite them into the boardroom and ask their opinion on the strategies you’re looking to adopt.

And if you think they’re not up to it, remember that Mark Zuckerberg was only 23 when he was holding meetings about ‘The Facebook’ with some of the biggest, most intimidating Silicone Valley VC houses. As intimidating as they were, they weren’t ageist; they knew he was exceptionally bright and that he was onto something ground-breaking.

Final word

It’s funny that a website built by a college student for other college students is now a billion dollar enterprise which is becoming widely used by often tech-illiterate Baby Boomers. Y-ers are innovators, trend setters, and the ones now educating their parents, yet – in the business world – we are failing to get the best out of them.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said "’he future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams’. Well, I think the future can also belong to those who believe in the beauty of others' dreams. In the business world, we have been too blind to believe in and back the dreams of our youth – and to realise the future is actually the generation behind us, not ahead of us.  I feel lucky to have had an epiphany and can see the world from a different lens. I'm now on a mission to empower young people: I know, in a few years, the 'decision tree' of the workplace will have shed its old leaves and sprouted anew; this time with Generation Y on top.

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