Leading Millennials: How to lead and engage student interns.

The following is my keynote address for the Annual Community Partner Appreciation Lunch for the Community Engaged Learning Team of Western's Student Success Centre.

Hi everyone and thank you for having me here today to share some stories and inspiration regarding my experience with student interns as well as some challenges for leaders to consider. Thank you for being here and demonstrating your commitment to the next generation of leaders through community learning programs like this one.

I’ve been working in the nonprofit sector since I was 18 years old. I started by handing out keys and towels in the locker room of the downtown YMCA. Smiling, washing and folding hundreds of towels and saying “Hi” to everyone each day was my introduction into what it means to serve people. I loved this job. The atmosphere and work environment at the Y has always been one of high values and family fun. This part time job, twenty five years ago, taught me to love the nonprofit sector and showed me examples of community leadership.

When I was in university, we didn’t have student internships, it was simply about lectures, readings and passing the tests they gave. I had never experienced what school is like when the classroom expands into the community. 

Although high school field trips to Pond Mills or Circle R Ranch were fun learning experiences, they lacked the ability for us as students gain work experience, learn to network and test out the job market while doing good. 

What I see through students today is that they experience a wide variety of projects, break through the Western bubble to see what happens in the workplaces each of you represent here today. They report being surprised by how things are done and love the people they meet and the experiences they gain. They go on to tell me that they’re so glad they participated and then they enthusiastically begin to engage their friends into what London has to offer. Many have become connected to volunteer opportunities, run for election with the London Youth Advisory Committee, join Emerging Leaders and become thirsty for what they can participate in that will take their learning even further.

Today there are community learning programs at universities such as this one with Western’s Student Success Centre. Since my days at the Y, I have worked in several leadership roles in nonprofits in our community and have been very lucky to have mentored dozens of students. Even now, while running my own business, I meet with a couple students per week for coffee to empower them, motivate them and connect them to other leaders in our City that may help them in their journey to finding or creating a career. I do this because they inspire me and teach me to stay young minded and innovative.

This new generation of students are unique and I find the generational differences quite interesting. My parents are baby boomers. They got a job, worked hard in the same company for forty years, saved for retirement and then retired. They had a very high work ethic, good benefit plans and still live in the same house I grew up in. As a Generation X’er I was raised with their ‘way’ as being the ‘right way’ to do things. Many of our workplaces hold these values firmly today, and this can lead to some struggles between the ages regarding tradition vs. innovation. Many leadership books are currently being written about how to lead this new generation because they are really shaking things up. Today’s youth are doing things quite differently and we have a lot we can learn from them.

I am very lucky to have found my way in London’s nonprofit sector. In school, I wasn’t taught about social justice, sustainable environments or how to have an impact in my community. We were taught how to be nice, respect our elders and be responsible. Nothing is wrong with that; however, it is a very different world than the one students live in today.

Today, students are raised learning to work in teams, be creative and solve the world’s problems through school projects. I find that they have a natural internal drive to improve the world we live in. They stand up for what they believe in and are much more vocal than we were able to be, in large part due to social media. This generation of students wants to make a difference and are brilliant and creative about how they want to do that. 

This is where we come in. As community leaders we have an obligation to pass on our learning and experiences to this younger generation. Seeing all of you here today shows me that you’re interested in doing just that. In fact, I bet any one of you here today could be up here sharing similar stories and advice. I’m preaching to the choir and for that I thank you. Your inspiration and role modelling is humbling.

Students want to make an impact in their world and you have the opportunity to let them do that. I know that over the years it has been challenging to mentor students. You may have had a bad experience or find that it takes too much of your time (or your staff’s time) to have a student in your organization. Trust me, I understand; however, I have seen a difference in the past few years. There is something new about them, something interesting and something I want to capture in the work that I do.

Students can be valuable to you, your employees and the people you serve. Thinking bigger than you have in the past about what role you give them in your company is something I’d love you to consider. Allowing them to do a task or take on a project that has higher stakes or challenges them a bit more than usual is a great way for them to learn. This; however, is risky for us as leaders. You have to guide them, instruct them and then be ok with how things turn out. 

Let me give you an example of someone who impressed me more than I could have imagined. I met Melanie after an event at Ivey Business School. She was just finishing her HBA and was eager to change the world. Melanie wanted to volunteer with me as she loved the concept of social enterprise and sustainability and wanted to learn from the work I was engaged in at the time. 

She was just about to start a new career at TD Canada Trust but wanted to exercise her philanthropic side. I told her I was going to be running an all day strategy workshop on a Saturday with a local start up nonprofit and if she wanted to help me prepare a few things and then come watch how I work she was welcome. 

Not only was she thrilled for the opportunity but she excelled at preparing for the session by sending me an outline that blew me away. We used all the content she created and in the moment when we were there, I even let her facilitate. With huge eyes of fear, she took a deep breath and jumped up to lead part of the session and was stellar. 

The group loved her and they even had her come back to work with them more to deeply develop their strategy work. From this experience she went on to teach two sessions on sustainability for students in the Western Continuing Education’s Nonprofit Certificate and continued volunteering and impacting others with Pillar Nonprofit Network. Today, after a few years of volunteering, she has left her work at TD and is leaving for Nicaragua to impact global health with the Global Brigade movement. 

The experience I had with Melanie taught me not to underestimate students. They are smart, resilient and very eager to jump in. Melanie saw things and experienced things she wouldn’t have learned if Western wasn't open to connecting with the community. She may have only seen her future in the corporate sector, which would have been successful but we would have missed out on her.

My experience has shown me that students come to you with high expectations. Because they literally want to change the world, sometimes the small role we can give them doesn’t affect them the way they were hoping when they started. This can be disappointing for them. 

If I can give you advice, start your relationship with them by asking a few questions and then listening to them. What are their goals? What are they hoping to achieve? What impact do they want to have? Why did they choose your organization? How can you help them? 

Once you establish this together you can identify their strengths, how they fit into your organization and what role is the best fit for them. Each person is unique and just like your employees, understanding what makes them tick will help you lead them to the best of your ability. Having some flexibility in the role you pre-defined for them or simply waiting to co-create it with them could make all the difference in their perception of success and in the productivity you receive.

Another important thing to consider is how you can help harness the learning they do acquire from your internship opportunity? Often the time they spend with you just feels like a beginning or the start of something great. It was a taste of something that moved them. It made them see something in themselves they didn’t know was there. What do we do with that? How do we keep watering the seed we planted whether within your organization or within the broader community?

Can a mentorship or volunteer opportunity be solidified with them before they leave? Can you involve them in drafting a succession plan or exit strategy for their role that can be implemented when they’re done with you? Perhaps you could connect them with other leaders who operate in areas where your student is passionate? How can you leave them with lasting memories that they will take with them through their life?

In today’s job market, 80% of the jobs that are available are not posted online. It is rare that anyone even gets an interview by simply emailing a resume to a job posting. Helping your new intern network is a great skill for them to gain. Can you have them shadow you to committee meetings? Can you give them assignments where they need to meet with other community partners and learn about what they do? Can you have them interview your staff team to learn about everyone’s career path? These are just some ways you can go above and beyond simply providing skills in an internship role; but rather, deeply and positively affect someone’s life. 

I remember a time I worked with Hannah at Pillar Nonprofit Network and as a student, she was assigned to partner with me during the night of the Community Innovation Awards. My goal was to teach her how to network, introduce her to great leaders and help her navigate the evening. She was very excited to get the in’s and out’s of networking and when we debriefed afterwards she felt much more comfortable and was excited to re-connect over time with some of the people she’d met. Teaching them the power of LinkedIn, handshakes and business cards allows them to feel strong enough to tackle job hunting from a networking perspective. This small task on my part will hopefully allow Hanna to find the hidden career she’s looking for.

A big change in mentoring Millenials is that they communicate much differently. Having been raised with social media, texting and instant messaging they may need to be taught telephone etiquette. I don’t mean that they need you to teach them to make a call; however, they might need some motivation and confidence building as it is not part of their culture as it was ours. 

Consider ways in which you can harness their use of technology brilliance with social media or preference for texting. Also consider how you may influence them to use alternate methods of communication such as hand writing letters or making a number of phone calls to thank your donors. This will help them grow and also allow you to manage potential abuse of their techy communication tools when you don’t want them in high use.

This age range gets blamed for having an overinflated sense of entitlement, increased distractedness or commitment level or even that they have a lower work ethic than previous generations. I often hear people say things like “our world is in so much trouble with today’s youth” or “i’m managing staff who have such a low work ethic and they don’t even know the value of a dollar”. I struggle when I hear these types of comments because it is simply a leadership issue. In my opinion, our leadership needs to adapt and change in order to welcome in this new generation to our workforce. I fully believe we will not be disappointed.

How can you engage this age group in a way that is meaningful to them with valuable work that teaches them important things you’ve learned along your career journey? Who says that past view of work ethics are the right views? Seeing new teams trying new things has shown me that maybe we need to reevaluate how we do business in order to accommodate the changing belief systems of our younger workers and student interns. Seeing local examples of Voices.com and Ellipsis Digital and global examples like Google and others who take this new younger culture at face value and lead them in creative ways is inspiring. They are great examples for the rest of us.

Research tells us that “While baby boomers and generation x employees are known to check their email at 11pm, millennial savvy tech skills and desire for work-life balance allows them to unplug after hours. They are able to do more with less time and may not be available around the clock the way that older workers are. This kind of willingness has become outdated as many workplaces switch to shorter workdays or summer friday schedules.” 

Seeing how fast Kelly, a young intern of mine, could create templates and an entire marketing plan for the community initiative I was working on, all while balancing her exams, some minor health concerns, and being part of her student council, was astounding. 

They’re brains work faster, they’re knowledge and use of technology is light speed ahead of ours and I’ve been surprised by this each and every time. It’s time we learned from them.

As leaders, I believe our role is to allow student interns to teach us. Let them astound you. Instead of wanting to give lessons and role model in one direction like a supervisor in a hierarchy, let them influence you in your role as leader. 

When I take an moment to learn from the students I’ve met, I realize that I’ve grown from each relationships as well. This shifts my perspective. I choose to learn from my staff, my volunteers and my students. I purposefully surround myself with smarter people and many of them are younger than I. I support them and lead them they way they need me to. They have given me real life examples of strong leadership values that I use in my daily work. 

Price Waterhouse Cooper did a Global CEO survey that asked questions about Millenials in the workforce. One of the most important pieces of information I found in their report has to do with communication. 

We know how important good communication is as leaders. With the average age of these student interns being 17-21 they, as millennials, are emerging as leaders “who are turned off by information silos and uncomfortable with rigid corporate structures. What they expect is rapid progression, a varied and interesting career and constant feedback.” So, my takeaway from their report is that we should consider how to speed up our sometimes less-than-speedy-sector, create opportunities for them to try new things and be constantly open and transparent, ensuring ongoing, real time feedback as opposed to our tradition of the annual performance appraisal model where we only tell people how we feel once a year. That said, will we be leaders that are ready for this kind of change or will we make them fit into our current reality?

Where young leaders are forced to fit into tradition we’re seeing them make change on their own. The PwC survey also stated that “this is the first generation to enter the workplace with a better grasp of key business tools than more senior workers.” In a time where the charitable sector is financially uncertain and funding models are changing these young, innovative thinkers are contributing largely to the world of social entrepreneurship. Going out on their own and creating world changing concepts outside of our traditional structures.

Forbes top 30 under 30 list are all made up of founders who mention social justice in their bio. If we can expose our students actively in the most challenging issues in our community I bet we’d be surprised at what they’d achieve. I for one would love to see more of this.

When I met Chris, a student at Ivey who was going to work with me on a project with the Coupons for Hunger team, I had no idea that his brilliance would turn into what we know today as Textbooks for Change. London’s first B Corporation that sells tens of thousands of used local textbooks on Amazon to help students in Africa. Chris is literally changing the world.

With all that being said, our wisdom as leaders needs to be passed down. Students are hungry to learn from us. With the hundreds I’ve met for coffee with in the last four years not one of them showed up late for our meeting. Every one of them dressed professionally and brought a notepad to take notes. I was honoured to meet each and every one of them. 

My favourite of all recently was Eva, a young lady in first year university who met me through a panel discussion I was part of at Western’s Student Success Centre. When I sat down for our coffee she was notably nervous. I asked if she was ok and she boldly said “I’ve never met a professional before”. This made me giggle, feel proud and humbled me at the same time. I still think of myself as the girl handing out keys in the locker room at the Y and I’m so blessed that I get to meet so many amazing students as often as I do. 

Thank you so much for listening to my opinions and stories today.  Before you go, I want give you permission to expect great things, not that you need to hear that from me, but I tell you this on behalf of Melanie, Hanna, Kelly, Chris, Eva and all the others who have flourished and grown because they too have experienced our sector. Push them harder, dream bigger and expect more. This next generation of employees and future leaders are ready. They are different, but they are ready and so blessed to have each of you ready beside them.

Thank you.


One *NEW* thing I've learned...or should admit!

One *NEW* thing I've learned...or should admit!

Authentic Leadership Development: The journey of growth & development.