I’m a CEO and I’m a baby boomer. The statistics tell me I’m not alone: a significant chunk of the 2.3 million SMEs in Canada are run by boomers on the verge of retirement.
We are in the midst of a serious succession challenge that needs to be tackled head on.
The problem is that right now, for every two retiring senior executives, there is only one suitable successor waiting in the wings. And the ratio is even bigger for SMEs. Unlike larger companies, we simply don’t have the huge pool of candidates coming up through the ranks.
Add to this, the constant risk of losing our limited top talent to south-of-the-border competitors. So it’s not surprising that we are in the midst of a serious succession challenge that needs to be tackled head on.
Many of these potential successors are millennials — that generation my fellow boomers take great pleasure in maligning. It would seem that a full 54 per cent of my peers consider these twenty and thirty-somethings difficult to lead and difficult to engage.
But the entrepreneur in me knows that where there are problems, there are solutions, just waiting to be hammered out. And I’m proud to belong to the “other half” of my generation that is actually quite optimistic about these up-and-comers, who have fresh insight and a whole new set of skills and talents to share.
At Walter Surface Technologies, we quickly learned the value of giving millennials a chance to show what they can bring to the game. Through the creation of our innovative internship program, Next to Succeed, we provide them with the chance to work closely every day with the senior executives in the company, right up to the CEO.
When given the right opportunity, they hit the ball out of the park. The internship is not only helping to shape the business leaders of tomorrow, it has helped us address our potential succession planning crisis.
The following are some of our key learnings on how to engage millennials and ensure the next generation is ready to lead your company:
Grab their interest and don’t let go
How do you attract young talent to your company when they have a world of possibilities open to them? Give them a unique opportunity that piques their interest in a management career and allows you to identify promising candidates with long-term potential for the company. If we want leadership-ready people tomorrow, we have to spark their intellectual curiosity and sense of ambition today.
Find out what motivates them and find the best opportunity that suits their interests. Their work should be challenging and meaningful so making and delivering coffee should not be part of their job description. At the very least, provide them with the momentum to explore similar paths at other Canadian SMEs by showing them how rewarding and fulfilling a career of this kind can be.
Let them move and shake with the movers and shakers
Nothing speaks louder than experience. By putting interns in the middle of the action, working side by side with your top people, you are letting them see for themselves how stimulating you world can be. Have them sit in and interact with executives in committee and board meetings. Have them travel along with you to familiarize themselves with your operations abroad. You can imagine how eye-opening and perspective-changing all of this is for them — and for you as well.
When they get involved in the conversation and actually contribute to strategic brainstorming, we all start to see things in a brand new light. Having a front row seat to what the younger generation thinks, feels and aspires to is truly a transformative experience. Personally, I know our business will benefit in many ways because of it.
Give them a chance to make a real difference
Next to Succeed is about as far from hand-holding or spoon-feeding as you can get. Ensure interns are able to make a concrete, impactful contribution during their time with your company. Give them the opportunity to lead a large-scale project with tangible results for the company, working under the direct supervision of upper management. You may be surprised by the result. In our experience, the outcome was something our organization can actually utilize — and an enviable addition to the intern’s resume.
The future is nowhere near as gloomy as some would have us believe. That being said, we need to take action now — not only to strengthen the sustainability of our own companies but also to ensure the Canadian business landscape as a whole remains diverse, vital and, dare I say, youthful.
To all the boomer entrepreneurs across the country, I have a message for you: Think of how much of an impact we could have if we all joined forces and got an initiative like Next to Succeed up and running from coast to coast.
Imagine the young talent we could harness and the energy and creativity it would infuse in our businesses. It’s high time for us to find new, different and mutually rewarding ways of passing the torch — before the flame flickers out.
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