July 1, 2021

TPL Insights: Building Peak-Performance Cultures #74 – Building Peak Performance Cultures with Engaged Gen Zer’s

By Rob Andrews

with paraphrased content from Kahlil Greene’s Open Letter to His Future Employers, Harvard Business Review June 29, 2021

Summary.   Kahlil Greene, a senior at Yale who served as the first Black student body president, takes us inside the conversations among Gen Zer’s deciding where to work. He offers unvarnished advice for today’s corporate leaders to build a bridge between generations.

For the class of 2021, our last year of college — supposedly the best time of our lives — was spent following restrictive regulations in response to the pandemic. Even though the circumstances leading up to our graduation were not ideal, we made it to commencement and into the job market.

After grinding through a virtual recruiting season, a lucky few have a handful of offers from which to choose. For this group — what you might call “top talent” — the conversation is less “Will I get a job?” and more “Where do I want to work?” We are ready to exercise the autonomy we lost this past year.

We know you want to create a diverse, inclusive, and great place to work for current and future generations. However, you are often not given the unvarnished feedback for why it is so difficult to make this happen. For your sake, and for ours, let me clue you into our decision process and share what often goes unsaid.

If you’re still making the business case for diversity, your company isn’t the place for us. 

As a freshman, I attended an investment banking event for underrepresented minorities where a recruiter told us about the efforts of the company’s diversity recruiting team. The team struggled to get adequate buy-in and investment to build a more diverse and inclusive workplace. What finally broke the inertia was a robust business case that proved that diversity was good for profits.

Although the recruiter didn’t intend for her story to be received this way, our big takeaway was: When it comes to DEI, that firm would only make progress if it were directly framed around profits, not because it was the right thing to do. It told me that they may not value ideas I bring to the workplace unless there was a direct link to revenue growth. I stopped considering working there after that session.  As one of my peers recounted, “If you care about your people, you care about what your people care about.”

We want companies to take a stand.

For most of our lives, we’ve been immersed in fast-paced political discussions on social media. Regardless of our political leanings, though, we’ve always known the importance of taking a stand.

For us, it’s more about our values and expectations of social justice than politics. A fellow Black student leader turned down a coveted internship at a renowned aerospace engineering company because the CEO and the company failed to make a statement after the George Floyd protests. Unlike other engineering companies, they did not have an explicit plan to address the striking lack of gender and racial diversity in their workplace. As my colleague said, “It was as though I was expected to be comfortable in a work environment where [I would be] one of few women and one of even fewer minorities. Why would I want to do that, especially when there are other options?”

We are works-in-progress.

Gone are the days when Ivy League admissions were just for the nation’s elite. Today, programs that provide financial aid and assistance have broadened the socioeconomic representation in top schools. We are America’s most diverse generation, but many of us are still the “firsts” in our families and communities. We’re not fluent in the language and social conventions of corporate America. We need to learn a new vocabulary to belong.

Consider the case of another classmate who completed an internship at a top management consultancy. She was raised in a household where, “If someone is in charge, your job isn’t to confront them [about their ideas] but to accept direction, keep your head down and do your work… and that doesn’t translate very well into many corporate cultures.” She notes that, “the biggest thing isn’t what I learned at home, it’s what I didn’t learn … like how to take up space, how to properly introduce myself, how to have networking conversations.”

Not surprisingly, her performance evaluations consistently surfaced these as opportunities for improvement. Even though she received a return offer, she turned it down because the institution had a number of blind spots when it came to understanding the needs of people from different upbringings. She says, “When I vocalized my frustration, it was turned back on me. [My boss] said, ‘Well you should have asked for help in this area proactively,’ but if I don’t even know what to look out for, I am not going to know to ask for help.” We don’t want special treatment — just help us level the playing field by understanding our context.

We want to be ourselves.

From TikTok to Clubhouse, we love expressing our unique identities on social media, and our career prospects have benefitted from the exposure. As digital natives, we can be assets to the companies where we work. We’re adept at a range of technology tools and services — whether it’s Facebook marketing or Google ads or gamification.

So, when we’re presented with a multi-page compliance manual that severely limits — or worse, forbids — our use of social media, we’re inclined to search for an environment that can provide similar work and pay while allowing us to bring our whole selves (even our social media selves) to work.

A friend who worked at a prestigious global consulting firm left to pursue entrepreneurship because, as a part of the firm’s requirements, she was bound by a restrictive set of social media guidelines and higher-ups discouraged her from using social media entirely while working there. “Salary isn’t as attractive as it used to be,” she says. On the flip side, when I completed a fellowship at ghSMART, I was encouraged to build out my LinkedIn, TikTok, and personal website by sharing insights related to social justice and business leadership. We want to be positive ambassadors for our companies, and we understand that our views are our own and we should be held responsible for consequences should we cross the line.

We want to make an impact.

Gen Zers are highly motivated to support social progress in our nation. For many of us, this is no longer a “nice-to-have.” We want a workplace where we can support nonprofit and social impact organizations and take on passion projects that do well for society.

Many of our potential employers allow for this by way of internal “extracurricular” programs or social service days. While admirable, this only serves to draw a line between our “work” and the “positive impact” we want to make. Carlos Brown Jr., a student nonprofit leader and community organizer at my university, says, “Making a positive social impact just can’t be an optional add-on, it should be built into the way work gets done.” Whether it is documented on employee evaluations or calculated into paid work time, an employee’s dedication to making the world a better place should be credited and encouraged. After all, the leadership skills we gain with social impact initiatives make us better leaders in the workplace and raise the profiles of the companies we represent in the community.

Gen-Zers will soon take over Corporate America. We are coming in with high standards for ourselves; we want to contribute to the companies we join and the societies of which we are a part. My hope is that this “straight talk” is a step toward building a bridge between generations and mindsets, so we can collectively create an inclusive and prosperous future.

Kahlil’s points and sentiments serve as a stark reminder that checking boxes, and there is a tremendous amount of that going on today, won’t get it. Organizations that succeed in building diverse, inclusive, and great places to work will embrace true transformation, starting with the board of directors, CEO, and senior leadership team. Is your company engineered for lasting fundamental transformation or are you checking boxes? We welcome the opportunity to be your thought partner on this and other issues around building cultures of peak performance.

Warmest Regards,

Rob Andrews
Allen Austin
Consultants in Retained Search & Leadership Advisory