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How To Unleash the Next Generation of Talent

03/13/2014 05:40 EDT | Updated 05/13/2014 05:59 EDT

A couple of months ago, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan suggested that parents need to demand more from their children to improve their performance at school. The subtext was loud and clear: stop being so complacent, stop expecting the system to sort everything out for you. You only have to look as far as Lena Dunham's group of friends on Girls to see that if you add family wealth and the economic realities of our time, this attitude can become a breeding ground for unfulfilled entitlement.

I can relate. As a child, I was told I could do anything, be anything. With good grades and the right extracurriculars, I could still have fun and get everything I ever wanted, the end.

By my 20s this transformed into a suffocating pressure to self-actualize. No, I wasn't going to be a neurosurgeon like I had always dreamed (it turns out you actually have to go to medical school for that.) I felt like a failure because I had expected it all to happen so fast. The idea of starting at the bottom of a large, faceless company and working my way up over 20 years seemed out of the question. And let's face it, they would probably phase me out in a reorg by the time I made it to middle management. I managed to find my path, but it continues to curve in ways I never would have imagined as a child.

This attitude is typical of us so-called Millennials. We can do some amazing things: "I just built a fully functional eCommerce site and I'm 14 years old...hi!" in large part because of our unprecedented access to information and to each another. We don't take rules at face value "but Why?" and we probably have the greatest sense of entitlement in history, admittedly not the most attractive of qualities. We're also facing the gloomy realization that our professional lives may not proceed the way we imagined they would.

Now, as I step for the first time into the role of chief operating officer at a consulting company in Toronto, I'm faced with this challenge from the other end. In consulting, much like any industry that requires innovation, talent is paramount. We know there is a slew of young talent out there with impressive skill, agility and creativity. They lack professional experience but also demand more autonomy, responsibility and fulfillment in work than ever before. So how do we get what we need from them, while giving back what they seek from us as employers?

There are two clues to this puzzle that have been on my mind lately. The first is from "one of the most important documents ever to come out of Silicon Valley," a slide deck describing the culture at Netflix. This deck is loaded with gems, but the idea that's most relevant here is that the most talented individuals want to work with great colleagues doing great work. If you can provide that as a company, you should also expect nothing less than greatness from your people.

The second idea was sparked by the release of a new book, The Decoded Company, co-authored by several leaders at a Toronto company called Klick and Rahaf Harfoush. They talk about using technology as a coach, to provide employees with the tools and guidance they need, when they need it. Two examples of this are Google, the ultimate performance support tool that provides us with super relevant information (almost) every time we need it, and on a smaller scale, that pop-up that tells you if your online password is too weak and suggests you create a stronger one.

These ideas come together as follows: We hire the most promising new talent, we give them the tools they need to fill in the gaps, for example a way to Google any and every company-specific approach or process. We spend more time setting expectations, both ways. We give them the chance to make big contributions to the company. And we expect them to rise to the challenge.

This won't necessarily work for every role or type of work. But I have seen potential in the next generation and I'm curious and committed to finding out where the boundaries of possibility lie for our company, if they exist at all.

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