Starting your career in a big company is tough. Whether it’s a bank, super fund or insurer – you’re the smallest fish in a gigantic pond. Shaneen Marshall and Ashton Jones have both spent careers navigating these tumultuous waters, riding the waves of success and bracing themselves for when storms hit. And while becoming leaders before age 30 was enormously rewarding, each say it’s been a steep learning curve.

Diversity for better customer service

The customer revolution is at the heart of most corporate transformations. Insurers and funds service a broad spectrum of the community, and with a highly diverse customer base, there is pressure for leadership teams to represent the communities they serve.

But how can a board get into the head of a 25-year-old that grew up with a supercomputer in her pocket? The answer lies in more cognitive diversity in leadership teams. Young and old, side-by-side, respectfully challenging each other to future proof the business.

Today’s young leaders straddle the divide between an analogue and a digital world because their mental models have been shaped under a rapidly evolving technology landscape.

Having spent over ten years climbing the corporate ladder, Marshall and Jones have firsthand experience of what big companies can do to make the most of young leaders’ strengths and weaknesses. Big companies that support young leaders drive a competitive edge by providing a platform for everyone to contribute ideas and energy – allowing room for mistakes (without punishment) and opportunity to learn from the wisdom of others (without being patronised).

Naïve but not yet cynical

There have been times when Marshall and Jones both admit to being apprehensive when graduates in their teams have approached them with bold ideas and they’ve had to curb their initial cynical or dismissive gut reaction.

From their experience, a young leader tends to:

  • be more optimistic about the likely success of the task at hand
  • underestimate the timeframe and budget required to achieve the task
  • be more willing to explore riskier or unorthodox options.

Even though Marshall and Jones attribute this to the ‘planning fallacy’, they believe that encouraging ideas from young leaders, and giving them room to fail, can lead to real change, innovative solutions, higher return and more motivated, passionate and energised teams.

Gaining value from old and new

Australian business culture greatly values the wisdom of hindsight. As the “lucky country”—with almost 30 years of unbroken economic growth and strong stable government and social institutions—the benefit of hindsight has worked in Australia.

Experienced business leaders know the world is cyclical. The past repeats itself. Whether it’s old products that come back in fashion (hello, velvet), organisational restructures going back to the future, or dusting off competitive strategies that have worked before. These cycles are what many consulting firms rely on, finding a method that works and repeating it for multiple clients with subtle nuances.

The same applies to an experienced leader who may have ”seen it all before” and has the benefit of hindsight to quickly change tact to better achieve success, lower the risk or make the task more efficient.

With less historic adversity to overcome, Marshall believes Australian companies are naturally slower to embrace change. “This has meant that radical new business models aren’t a necessity yet and perhaps why young leadership hasn’t been promoted as actively,” she said.

Having spent part of her career working overseas, Marshall says countries such as South Africa, and also Israel, don’t value the benefits of hindsight as highly as others because their context is so varied and always changing. Adversity and rapidly changing external environments require different thinking, adaption, agility, positive energy, which Marshall said are “some of the things that young people inherently bring.”

The lesson for young leaders is that they need to learn to look to the past and listen to the wisdom of more experienced leaders to inform the way they do things. If not, they risk being seen as inefficient or ineffective in reinventing existing processes, products or systems. The lesson for experienced leaders is to harness the inherent traits of young leaders to expediate change.

Biased to build for the future

For companies looking to set a long-term strategy that engages digitised consumers, it stands to reason that some of their leadership team should have lived the digital experience rather than just learnt about it.

Young leaders grew up through the digital revolution and have glimpsed Gen Z’s fully automated future. This gives them an insight into the lived experiences of an increasingly digitised generation of consumers. Coupled with the inherent optimism of youth, young leaders challenge the status quo (for better or worse) with minds that are extremely future-oriented.

The flip side of this is that young leaders often don’t appreciate the real challenges of building for the future in an ever-changing consumer and technology landscape. Wiser hands are needed to steady the ship and help constantly evaluate the trade-off between managing the now and building for the future. Jones and Marshall admit to experiencing times when they’ve realised truth to the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” (even when it applies to creaky legacy systems).

Still finding a balance

A culture of hard work and dedication is a hallmark of many young leaders. Work till midnight? Anytime. Weekends? Sure, I don’t have kids yet. Day after day, week after week and year after year. It is what makes them crucial to the productivity of organisations (and good value for money).

However, sooner or later personal circumstances change and this momentum becomes unsustainable. More importantly though, many leaders eventually learn how personal behaviours impact the cultures of the teams they lead.

Individual actions become expectations, which then become team culture. Young leaders need to be conscious of this and realise that being a top performer isn’t simply about putting in long hours – it’s about putting in long hours when it matters. This is the same mentality that elite athletes adopt – breaking up short, intense periods of high performance with regular breaks.

And when it comes to the big stage—be it board meetings or client presentations—it’s important for young leaders to remember that being a top performer doesn’t necessarily mean being the loudest person in the room. Young leaders often have an unspoken sense of anxiety when they’re given a seat at the table with older and more experienced leaders. There can be a tendency to overcompensate and show that they belong. Marshall and Jones note that on more than one occasion, CEOs have remarked to them: “You need to learn to stop talking once you’ve got the decision you wanted.”

“Sometimes planting a seed and keeping quiet is far more powerful. Young leaders would do well learn this, just like we had to,” Marshall and Jones concur.

Working side by side

Giving young leaders the opportunity to collaborate with wiser and older heads is a powerful thing. Marshall and Jones believe that putting the right young people on leadership teams will cultivate a “bias for the future” and help companies remain ahead of the curve by experimenting with new business models and ways of working.

Given some of the challenges they’ve personally experienced as young leaders, Marshall and Jones believe the most effective way to implement this is to make young leaders feel comfortable sitting at the table or being on equal footing with more experienced leaders. Young leaders want to embrace, learn and benefit from the experience and wisdom around them. So create space for them, filter dismissive cynicism, actively sponsor them and foster a culture which balances complements with constructive criticism.

Financial services in Australia are undergoing radical changes, particularly in community expectations. Past experience and behaviours might not be as valuable as it has been. Perhaps this is the time to embrace what was previously considered naïve young leadership?