How to Engage the Next Generation Workforce and Win in Business

I recently had the privilege to spend time with the great leaders of today’s military including the Superintendents of both the United States Military and Naval academies for the purpose of seeking solutions to the placement of veterans in today’s workforce. We talked about many things, but conversations led to the new cadets and midshipmen entering the institutions. What has changed and what is unchanged?

To begin to answer this question, both Superintendents first talked about what has not changed with those entering the two academies. Values have not changed. Duty, honor, and country are of utmost importance to these young people according to U.S. LTG Darryl A. Williams of West Point. “These kids are committed to something bigger than themselves,” explained Vice Admiral Sean S. Buck of the Naval Academy.  LTG Williams also indicated that the intellect of those donning the uniforms at the academies is extreme with him stating that he didn’t think I could get into West Point today based on the test scores and the academic performance of the new entries. As a 1987 graduate of USMA, I would have to agree with him.

Companies today can be comprised of four generations. Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and the newly graduating Gen Z. This dichotomy is greatly impacting the workforce and offers great leadership challenges. According to General Williams, “Today’s generation does not have the same social boundaries as other generations.” At times, picking up on the cues of social interactions is missing to Gen Z, and it will for the generations that follow because heads are down and looking at screens; not faces, not body expressions, not voice tones.

Why is this important? According to General Williams, “We have to train our new cadets to look people in the eye when in conversation, and this is new for our leadership team.” These new cadets have to be trained in human interaction.  Literally from a life and death perspective, these graduates “will see combat” when they leave the confines of the institutions in which they are trained. Just think about the importance of picking up on non-verbal cues in a wartime situation when young military leaders are interfacing with people from different countries, in small towns and villages, and don’t know if individuals are friends or foes. Missed social cues, not picking up on an obvious lie due to body language, voice inflections, and other hints can mean disaster for our troops already in harm’s way. Picking up on non-verbal cues can save lives because they add to instinct and decision making as a leader.

In the business environment, leaders must understand and adapt to this. For example – we as leaders have to teach and often emphasize the importance of picking up the phone or having face-to-face visits in times when it is more proper than an email or a text, remembering to work with the new generations on understanding both verbal and nonverbal cues.

Giving the next generation their dues however, Vice Admiral Buck stated that the students recruited today have strong core values. Honor, courage, and commitment. He said, “I sleep well at night knowing who will be leading our country in the future.” Today is much different than when I stepped into the military several decades ago. We had a singular focus and knew our enemy both inside and out…the Soviet Union.  Today, the landscape is much different. We have a multipolar environment. We need our graduates to have solid critical thinking skills. They must be agile in their thought processes. We need our graduates to be tough and resilient. We need our graduates to outthink the enemy. We will win upcoming conflicts, not because we have superior technology and firepower, but because we have developed the intellect and the agility in our thought processes.

The same can be said for incoming employees to any company or facility – in order to maintain and win business, we must be agile in our thought processes and have a resiliency ingrained in those who lead our companies. We must invest heavily and focus on those who are out-front with the role of leading; doing that will ensure a sustainable future for any business – if the academies are doing it (the best leadership development institutions in the world), there is no doubt this best practice must be adopted by the business world as well.