Give Young Talent a Chance
Some years ago, after General Rick Hillier had retired as Chief of the Defense Staff of the Canadian Military and was on the speaking circuit, we invited him to Calgary to address a staff town hall meeting (and a superb speaker he turned out to be!). Over dinner the night before the town hall, I asked him something I’d often wondered: How does the military take a collection of raw recruits and within a few short years identify, develop and deploy the leaders in the group – giving them responsibility for what could literally be life and death situations. Unlike most industries, the military can’t recruit experienced leaders; they have to develop them internally. In a conservative industry like mine (engineering), it would take at least twice long to develop leaders. His response was another “acorn from an old oak tree” that I tucked away for future use.
Here’s the essence of what he said: Early in basic training the officers expose the recruits to stressful situations and watch how they respond. The ones that show leadership capabilities (calmness under fire, ability to make good decisions, resilience, etc.) are quickly assigned more responsibility and their performance monitored. That development process continues iteratively for those who do well. The transferable learning that I took away – create opportunities for young people to demonstrate their leadership abilities early, and aggressively develop the ones who show promise!
When I reflect on my own career, I realize I was the beneficiary of many of those kinds of opportunities. Someone was willing to take a risk on me when I was the “kid” and live with the consequences. I’m not saying that my development process was as calculated as Rick Hillier’s description of the military…I think sometimes my challenging assignment was out of a manager’s sheer desperation for a “warm body to assign”...but every time it happened I experienced growth in ways that I could not have imagined and discovered capabilities I didn’t even know I had.
One early example was when as an intermediate civil engineer in a large, multidiscipline office in Toronto. I was invited to move to Sault Ste Marie to be the lead engineer in a small office that focused on civil projects (a classic “small fish in a big bowl” to “big fish in a small bowl” scenario). My learning curve in the two short years I spent in the Sault was exponential…how to manage people, how to manage projects, how to manage customers. In retrospect, this, and the many other times I was “thrown off the deep end” (or at least it often felt that way) were the times that put a booster rocket in my career development.
Here’s my bottom line…take a chance on young talent. Sure, some mistakes will be made, but fresh leaders will emerge to propel your organization into the future. It’s worth the risk!