In The Trenches

Are you raising teenagers at work?

Published on February 26, 2018 Back to blog
Teenagers using phone on couch

A few weeks ago, a friend was complaining to me about how some of his younger colleagues didn’t seem to respect his years of experience in the advertising business – and often seemed to ignore his guidance and recommendations. He couldn’t understand why some people wouldn’t just take his advice and proceed accordingly. Why did they have to push back, and do things their own way? “They’re just wasting time and causing frustration,” he told me.

After listening to him vent for a while, I acknowledged that I sometimes feel the same way. However, I don’t get frustrated when it happens (well, not as much as I used to anyway) because I’ve learned to accept one critical perspective about mentorship and leadership:

Your employees are like your kids.

You want to protect them, help them grow up and learn, and guide them in the right direction so that they eventually become amazing, independent adults. That’s your job – and it’s not an easy one. However, just like kids, they go through different stages of learning. And, once you accept and understand these phases, the job becomes a bit easier. Here are the four key stages, as I see them:

Stage 1 – Young children (Infant/Toddler/Child): Young, eager employees who are generally new to the business are just like young children. These employees generally look up to you. They respect you and believe that you know most everything. If you give them advice, they heed it. If you tell them they did something wrong, they understand. (They may do it again, but at least they know that it is the wrong thing to do.) When they have questions or need advice, they come and ask you for it. And, when you give them unsolicited advice, they are generally open and appreciative of it. Cherish these years and do the best you can to mold them and point them in the right direction.

Stage 2 – Teenagers: These are frustrating years. It often happens after an employee has had a few “wins” under their belt, gains confidence, and has learned enough to be dangerous. We (the parents/mentors) go from being the all-knowing adult to the “what-do-they-know?-elder.” Advice is not only taken with a grain of salt, it is often viewed as “what not to do.” This is the group that my friend is talking about. Recognize that this is normal, and is an essential part of the learning/growing up process. (Although, some “teenagers” get through this phase more quickly than others.) You just need to adjust accordingly:

  1.  Let go of the leash a bit: Let them make mistakes and experience failure – this is how they learn best. 
  2. Protect yourself and others: In some cases (i.e., client presentations), it is safest to hedge your bets. Let the teenager do it their way, but be sure they include an alternative option that is more in line with what you believe is best. 
  3. Be open to learning something new: The good news is that, although sometimes difficult to admit, every once in a while they will prove you wrong and you’ll learn a thing or two from them. 
  4. Let teens learn from teens: Teenagers tend to be more open to advice and feedback from other teenagers. Let them debate and work with one another to discover solutions on their own. Often times, as a group, they will make smarter, more informed decisions – and they’ll learn from the process.

Stage 3 – Young-Adults: Eventually, after experiencing some failures (and recognizing that “maybe you weren’t as dumb as they thought you were”), the kids will start respecting and listening to you again. They will continue to have confidence and make their own decisions, but they’ll also be open to your advice (solicited or not). Enjoy these years and watch them flourish! They’ll even start learning how to raise kids and help bring them along (although, perhaps more like babysitting as opposed to parenting). Watching young adults excel are some of the most rewarding times I’ve had as a leader/mentor.

Stage 4 – Fully Functioning Adults/Parents: Your kids are now adults. They still respect you and heed your advice, but they are now respected advice-givers as well. They have their own kids to mold, let fail and guide to adulthood. Congratulations, you raised a great kid.

So, next time one of your employees is acting like a teenager, remember that they probably are one (in the context noted above). Approach it accordingly. Eventually, they will get through it and you will be able to watch them become thriving young adults and eventually great parents themselves. And, of course, if the teenage years seem to be going on for too long, you can always throw them out of the house (more of an option at work than at home.) 

 Have a great day!

Jeff Freedman
CEO/Managing Partner
Small Army | Finn Partners