Managing young leaders

India has rich demographics of more than 50 per cent of the population being under 30 years of age.

Suresh Rajagopal Suresh Rajagopal

The young seem to be everywhere. Everybody in India goes gaga over the country's rich demographics of more than 50 per cent of the population being under 30 years of age.

Naturally, this is impacting the workplace as well. Younger, brighter and energetic employees are climbing the corporate ladder much more rapidly. They are impatient for success and rewards, and organisations can ignore their demands at their own peril. Retaining talented young leaders is the No.1 headache for most HR heads across organisations.

As with any changing trend, this is posing its own set of unique challenges for all the three players - organisations, young leaders and senior employees.


1. While a policy of promoting young talent is a no brainer, organisations need to have back up plans for those who are talented but cannot be promoted. There is a natural taper at the top and only so many can be accommodated. Perhaps, there are new business lines waiting to be opened where some of them can find a place. Maybe, market expansion will take the company to newer geographies which will open up overseas postings.

2. From our experience, we have seen many cases where exciting young talent have not been able to rise up to the challenge. Maybe, it is the sheer enormity of the task or the challenges of the top job or a failure of soft skills that leads to this. Organisations which have a policy of nurturing leaders by giving them challenging assignments with an independent charge have fared much better on this count.

3. A key part of success at senior positions is the ability to balance different stakeholders, be it your bosses, shareholders, board of directors or employees. Many young leaders typically lack the maturity or wisdom to handle these competing interests. Employing a coach to prepare personnel for such challenges is always a good idea to help the youngsters to hit the ground running.

4. Taking the older employees along is also important for organisations. While the young are promoted, organisations need a good blend of youth and experience for overcoming the various challenges. Michael North and Hal Hershfield (HBR Blog) suggest various innovative measures to adapt to an ageing workforce. For example, companies like Vodafone are prioritising older worker skills in hiring and promotion. Some other companies are creating new positions or adapting old ones.

Inputs for young leaders:

1. Your success in your previous role got you the leadership position. Forget that and start with a clean slate for a new role. You will need to develop newer habits for success at this position. Recognise the challenges that the role brings.

2. Senior positions are not only about great decisions but also knowing to avoid the bad ones. Your mentors and the Board should be used as a sounding board for difficult decisions.

3. Develop internal and external networks which help you to step back and take an impartial view of the situation. Ask your advisors what they would do in such a situation. Needless to say, teamwork is critical for victory. Instances like a Steve Jobs turning around the fortunes of a company are rare and even in that case he had an A Grade team.

4. Some young leaders start with the assumption that all older people on the team are deadwood and have to be got rid of. As with all generalisations, that is not true. Longevity is on the increase and older people are going to work longer. Look at ways in which you can leverage the experience of the older people on your team.

5. Recognise that good times will not last forever. Do not take failures personally. Invest in family time and remain healthy.
Inputs for senior employees

6. The possibility of reporting to a person younger than you is on the increase. This is an irreversible trend. Rather than making it an ego issue, accepting the fact and contributing to the overall cause of the company will be beneficial for all concerned.

7. If you drop your ego, you will realise that there is actually a lot to learn from young leaders. Their use of technology, social media, radical ways of thinking and speed are what the organisation probably needs in these challenging times.

8. Just as this is an awkward moment for you, the same is true for the young leader who is grappling with the softer issues of dealing with an older reportee who sometimes could be as senior as his/her father! Walk the extra mile in the relationship if needed to start on a friendly note.

9. Lastly, have a Plan B. If either the young leader or the new environment becomes insufferable, you may have to quit and look for other options. The law of the jungle applies in the corporate world too.

(The author is Co-founder and CEO of Mumbai-based Consumerge Wealth Managers, which specialises in wealth management, HR consultancy and coaching. He has spent over 25 years in senior management and leadership roles)