Managing graduates: Give them their rites of passage

With the advent of anti-ageism laws, the position of the older worker has been overplayed. Managers are so keen to avoid being seen as prejudiced towards 50-plus staff that nobody considers the plight of young graduates.

The pressure from older workers entering the graduate job market at junior levels and the danger of recent graduates leapfrogging into high-flying posts beyond their level of competence have led us to a position where young people are being denied the rites of passage they need to build a fulfilling career.

Building blocks

If young graduates cannot access the more junior ranks of the organisation as they start to carve out their career, they will inevitably miss out on the vital building blocks that educationalists agree are needed to access higher levels of learning and achievement. If you cannot master long division in maths, you will struggle with differential calculus.

Missing out building blocks in the ‘career wall’ will mean that either the graduate can only reach a certain level, or that the wall may come crashing down around them. As people specialists, it is our role to give them the best possible chance, and help ensure a solid foundation for their growth.

Brent avoidance strategies

One of the dangers of the ‘leapfrogging’ phenomenon is that managers never actually get the chance to observe management practice good or bad. Behaviour modelling is a key concept in developing your own management techniques. Even if your manager was David Brent from The Office, you would still learn something – if only to avoid repeating anything he said or did in the future. Make sure new graduates benefit from a clear management structure that gives them the opportunity to learn and model their own development.

Embracing mistakes

Great sportsmen and women understand the maxim that you practice ideas in training, not during the performance. If we put young people out into the fray too soon without giving them the opportunity to try out new ideas, they will either play things too safe, or experiment during the ‘performance’ and will most likely crash and burn – along with your company’s reputation. HR managers need to give young people opportunities to experiment, come unstuck, and try out new ideas as part of a gradual learning process. Mistakes that have never been made cannot be learned from.

cul8r boss

Young graduates in the workplace learn the finer points of communication from their older colleagues and managers. If, because of the new age discrimination laws, the mix is not right, we will face the real danger of graduates making things up as they go along. They may think it acceptable to call the client ‘mate’, and to text ‘cul8r’ to their boss.

As you progress in your career, you build up a reference library of incidents, behaviours, successes and mistakes. These all form part of your career reference library. Of course, we can use training to avoid many of the pitfalls of business life, but the more subtle skills, usually to do with communication, are best honed by experience – which can only be gained over time and by progressing through the ranks.

Network knowledge

In any environment, younger staff need to be given time to build up their own networks of contacts in the industry. Ideally, they will learn networking skills with their peers before striking out and finding high-level contacts at board level, which make them a more valuable employee, and give them the confidence to aim for higher levels of achievement.

Doing a Theo Walcott

An example of missed rites of passage from the world of sport is Theo Walcott, the 17-year-old Arsenal footballer who was taken to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, only to have his confidence dented by not making it on to the field for a single minute. Once he was there, the coaches realised he was not psychologically ready to perform on a world stage.

We are in danger of thwarting the dreams and ambitions of a whole generation of graduates in a similar way by reducing the pool of entry-level positions, and at the same time, pushing inexperienced youngsters too far too fast. Managers need to help develop graduate skills and confidence at a rate that is suitable to each individual, working with them to help ensure success.

Natural cycles

At the core of this debate is the idea that there is a natural cycle for people to build their career, which is in danger of being eroded not by legislation, but by people’s extreme responses to the changes in the law. In our quest for a level playing field for old and young in the employment market, let us not deny youngsters the opportunities that us oldies have had – to build knowledge, skills, contacts and confidence, with the guidance of experienced staff at hand.

Case study

Clarissa Gent (26) graduated from Manchester University in 2003 with a degree in chemistry. Having attended various career events after graduation, she went to a Pareto Law assessment day, and was offered a role with Rackspace Managed Hosting. Rackspace specialises in managed hosting providing organisations with the servers, software, bandwidth and management to run a range of hosted applications from internet to enterprise.

Initially, Gent worked as part of the firm’s ‘Q team’, and in her first month took a week’s training course with Pareto Law on advanced sales skills. This helped to nurture her ability and build her confidence to maximise her performance in the role.

A promotion to the managed sales team followed three months later, which involved selling solutions to companies including T-Mobile, Extreme Sports and eBay. Having specialised in solutions based on Microsoft operating systems, Gent then moved on to handle more complex enterprise deals at the start of 2005 and, in addition, took on the role of mentoring new team members to ensure detailed training and support was provided throughout the initial six-month period.

Within three years, she has progressed to manage the important ‘Q team’, where she started. In 2006, she also won the Young Sales Professional of the Year award at the National Sales Awards, in recognition of her professionalism and ability.

A combination of training, guidance and learning from her peers and experiences has allowed Gent to move quickly and smoothly through the ranks, resulting in an extremely successful start to her career, and well-structured foundations for the future.

Top tips for managing graduates

  • DO allow graduates to learn from their mistakes.

  • DON’T rush to promote graduates, missing vital rungs of the ladder.

  • DO give graduates the chance to learn from their peers.

  • DON’T push graduates to run before they can walk.

Our expert

Jonathan Fitchew is joint managing director of Pareto Law, a firm specialising in graduate recruitment and sales training. The company was the winner of the 2005 Sunday Times’ Best Small Company to Work For.

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