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7 ways to support the leadership potential of Gen Z

Valeria Murguia, 21, a university student, poses for a photograph in a field near her home in McFarland, California, U.S., December 17, 2020.
REUTERS/Brandon Bell
This generation is ready to take on whatever life throws at them.
  • Josh Feldman
By Josh Feldman

Vice president, leadership and student experiences, Hillel International

Managers, I have great news for you: The young adults who make up the business world’s early career talent are resilient, wise beyond their years, and incredibly capable. The most ambitious, diverse, and entrepreneurial generation in history will help repair the world in new and bold ways—and your company, too—if we nurture their leadership.

In the US, Generation Z, born in 1997 or later, has had a rocky road that showed them a shattered sense of the American promise. They grew up in a post-9/11 world and came of age amid the Great Recession, with the specter of gun violence within their schools, and with home ownership, stable jobs, and the ability to afford college more out of reach than ever for middle-class families.

Gen Zers have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. They have watched beloved grandparents, mentors, and teachers suffer and die. Those in school have seen their in-person classes and social lives disrupted. Those who are early career professionals were often the first to lose jobs as the economy crashed at the start of the crisis. More than 50% of young American adults now live at home with their parents, a level not seen in the US since the Great Depression.

A more fragile generation might have crumbled under the weight of these pressures, not to mention the existential threat of climate change, political polarization, and white supremacy.

Instead, Gen Zers have been our teachers and leaders. They show up on the front lines as leaders of social movements. They take conscious consumerism seriously and show the rest of us how to be savvy social media operators. They are storytellers and communicators who hold true to their values and beliefs. They have stepped up to lead on gun violence preventionenvironmental policy, and racial justice. They, in partnership with millennials, will soon become the largest voting bloc.

We must start by asking how we can help this generation thrive, and then support them as they do. 

My work at Hillel, the largest Jewish college organization, serving over 100,000 Gen Zers each year, has been a wonderful laboratory to learn how to help Gen Zers to thrive. Since the pandemic began, we have asked ourselves: What would it look like if we listened to what Gen Z has to say about their needs now? Here is a start:

1. Hire them today, with a living wage

Despite the tightening economy, we must invest in early-career talent everywhere we can. Expect Gen Z to seek out opportunities that pay well and have good benefits and healthy organizational cultures. Create wage transparency on your job descriptions. And once you hire Gen Z, invest in their training and growth.

2. Give them platforms to lead

Young adults should be in every place of power. They should be on boards and in front of the cameras, and CEOs should consult them before making strategic decisions. It is, after all, the perfect moment to slow down and listen.

3. Stop patronizing and vilifying them as idealists

Change is happening from the bottom up, transcending the trappings of nationalism, polarization, and fear. The people of this generation are pragmatic optimists and savvy operators. The fierce inquiry of Gen Z will open us to much better ways of working and doing. We need to listen when they ask for transparent decision making, a democratized process, spaces where it’s ok to have fun, and spaces where they will be taken seriously.

4. Create wellness support

Gen-Zers will leave jobs that don’t support their mental health. In one study, 75% of Gen Zers had left a job partially due to mental health reasons. They are experiencing increased levels of depression, anxiety, and stress at least in part because of the messed up world we handed them. They are also destigmatizing mental health,  modeling the importance of self-care for themselves and others. All older generations need to start being humble about our failings collectively. We need to stop trivializing their pain especially during the pandemic, when food insecurity, housing instability and debt are major drivers of stress.

5. Support them with teachers and mentors

They need thoughtful mentors, skillful teachers, and other people who have their backs, especially behind the scenes. They need to be connected to leadership that is representative. They need to see and believe that people of every race, gender, ability, and background can lead.

6. Create power structures that support an unprecedented five-generation collaboration

It’s time to change systems that have long excluded and held back everyone who wasn’t a cis, white, straight man from middle- or upper-class backgrounds. Let’s elevate and center POC and LGBTQ+ leaders asking: How can we change our systems to learn from and listen to the most diverse generation in history that supports communities and families of all kinds to thrive.

7. Get their identities right and be respectful

See Gen Z as they are.  Take the time to learn their incredible stories, their politics, their many identities. Get their pronouns right, and when you don’t, apologize for it. Most, but not all, are liberal on social issues. They often come from families of multiple faiths or none.

Gen Z must thrive if any of us will. Set aside some time to listen, ask for translation, and learn. Center their experiences and beliefs. If we do that, the brightness of your country’s and your company’s future will soon show us just how far behind we were in 2021.

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