I recently reviewed a lot of research and interviewed numerous candidates for jobs, and both point in the same direction: Large corporates have become less interesting working places for millennials.

Corporates spend increasing amounts of money on internal or employer branding: To improve staff acquisition as well as retention. Yet their most talented young workforce remains committed to the organization only as long as they have not yet found the opportunity to start their own business.

While technology is rapidly changing relevant work skillsets and team atmosphere, big corporations appear slow to react to the situation. They lose or fail to even attract the young talent – the very talent that is best equipped to deal with the latest technology. This failure to attract and retain talent is a growing cost factor and a competitive disadvantage at the same time.

The startup culture and its related modern workplace cousins are inspiring to young and flexible, ambitious and skilled people: Less top-down culture, more freedom to create and implement ideas, opportunities to raise up the ranks fast, learn even faster, and a philosophy where making mistakes is seen as a part of the development process, not as the end of the world (and possibly the termination of a work agreement).

But will such work culture remain in the startup’s DNA when the business reaches maturity and growth? Or do founders and leaders forget over time what made them turn their backs to corporate culture in the first place? Will the place they created remain inspiring for decades to come and capable of attracting fresh talent day in and day out – or will it become a largely faceless and bureaucratic corporation itself, soon to feel the same human resource crisis as today’s corporates?

Start-ups in their early stages appeal to the most talented youngsters.

I’ve been developing and training young friends and employees all my life, so this trend quickly caught my eye and had me observe it more meticulously in the past years. Before starting to do employer branding for our own small company, I started to review employees’ needs – what exactly is it in the startup culture that inspires them? 

The results: Especially the most talented yearn to be seen, desire to make their own decisions, are motivated by creating rather than administrating processes. They aspire to be champions of the company in their own right, they want to be proud of what they are doing and be able to show it off to the world around. 

It’s especially startups in their early stages that naturally provide the exact platform that matches these needs. I came to realize that if I could transform our company in such a way that it would be able to provide similar opportunities, we would have an advantage in attracting talented young people. 

But the transformation is never easy, and even our small company is a creature with its own mind, habits, and direction. I started borrowing insights and learnings from my earlier career as an English teacher and language trainer. 

Turning a company into an educational center 

Imagine a large company running many projects in parallel, with fresh young graduates working on these projects. They take their own decisions, learn from their own mistakes, and celebrate their own triumphs. They know they are being seen, and they feel they are heroes of their organization. 

However, they are not left alone. All fresh juniors or executives have a senior mentor who is responsible for training and guiding a team all through their projects. This mentor is not a “boss” in the classical sense, which tends to intimidate fresh beginners and make them dependent rather than independent. Their mentor is a trusted more experienced person with whom the juniors can feel free to cross-check their thoughts, approaches, and ideas. Based on this insight from a more experienced person, juniors are then encouraged to take their own decisions based on a very simple rule of thumb: 

If you are confident about your decision, take it. If you feel any doubt – ask. 

The mentors are not promoted to a more senior role unless they teach what they know to the juniors in their team. The juniors have a three-month opportunity to prove their skill, hunger, and ambition and to start their further journey in the organization, or they will be given a full assessment of their performance, their pros and cons, so they can improve their skills and try again later. 

A CEO in this context is no longer the Chief Executive Officer, but the Chief Education Officer. His or her job is to ready the middle managers for their positions as teachers or mentors: To coach them in modern teaching methodology and help them educate others more effectively. The whole organization needs to get rid of old-fashioned teaching methods and instead learn about contemporary education and schools of psychology: behavioral, cognitive, and humanistic psychology. 

Let’s review some of the above-mentioned methods, theories, and techniques that can help mentors at all levels to create and enhance internal training: 

1. Teacher-oriented vs. learning-oriented 

There is a famous sentence in modern teaching that says:

 “The teacher is no longer the sage on the stage but the guide in the side…” 

Every mentor must acknowledge that their role is not about showing off their knowledge to more junior colleagues, to compete for perceived influence, or to constantly portray superiority. Instead, their role is to empower their team and to let their juniors grow confidence in finding their own ways and taking decisions by themselves more and more often. 

2. Learning competence vs. acquiring performance 

Competence is what is known in theory, but that doesn’t necessarily drive behavior. Competence helps to succeed in a school test by knowing all the right answers, but applying this knowledge in the real world is a very different ballgame. So if mentors were to only “teach” their juniors, the juniors would only grow their competence. Which is important, but nowhere near enough. 

Performance, as opposed to competence, is acquired by experience, for example by creating meticulously design tasks that allow the learners to go through a trial and error process in their own way and speed, always under the guidance of their mentor who they can ask for advice when necessary. The result of such a process is actual performance, allowing to take more and better decisions. 

“A teacher is not a ‘teacher’ anymore. He is the director of a learning atmosphere
in which the learners acquire themselves.”

Stephen Krashen saw the acquisition as a subconscious process and learning as a conscious process, and claimed that improving one’s abilities were dependent exclusively on acquisition – and not on learning.

3. Mistakes and Feedback 

In the past, mistakes were considered to be a sign of low intelligence. However, they are really rather signals of an acquisition and development process happening. Mistakes show that a junior came out of his or her comfort zone and made an autonomous decision.

The environment is controlled and supervised by the mentor, so possible damages as a result of such decisions can be contained – some damage is perhaps inevitable, but it will not become crippling for the organization or its projects. 

An autonomous decision by a junior can only be right or wrong, just like anyone else’s decision would be. And neither of the two options is really negative: If a decision is right, it contributes to a project’s results. And if it is wrong, it contributes to the company’s experience and knowledge. 

“Mistakes are signals of learning.”

In order for a mistake to be a positive contribution, the way the organization deals with mistakes is extremely important. Also here, a shift in mentality compared to traditional organizations is necessary. Instead of punishment, sanctions, or negativity toward the person who made a mistake, the organization needs to understand the value of the mistake as a contribution. This means to see the person who made a mistake as the unlikely hero who just defused a bomb – since if he or she hadn’t made this mistake, someone else would have at some point. The person who made a mistake now has a new assignment: To understand what caused the mistake to happen, and to train others about how to avoid the very same mistake in the future. 

4. Evaluation vs. Assessment 

CV’s, bios, resumes, and even interviews are an insufficient means of evaluating a person. Just like the education system focuses on growing competence rather than performance, a CV is usually merely a description of a person’s competence and doesn’t really allow evaluating potential performance. 

A three-month trial period is a great way to give a person the opportunity to show what he or she is capable of, regardless of what’s written in a resume. It allows to explore opportunities, practice, and learn what’s needed inside an organization – while at the same time, it allows the organization to understand whether a person fits its culture, its mindset, and its needs.

It’s, of course, important that expectations are clearly communicated, even if they may at first not be very precise and allow for a healthy degree of experimentation. After three months, the two parties review each other. Either the company hires a new valuable talent – or it will help the person to find his or her path in another company or even industry.  

5. Stress and Performance  

The affective filter hypothesis states that learners’ ability to acquire something is reduced if they experience negative emotions such as fear, embarrassment, or stress. Therefore it’s the mentor’s job to create an atmosphere where bravery, speaking up, and the eagerness to find new solutions to old problems is encouraged. There is always a better way to do things, and fresh minds are usually the ones to find these ways. Seniority is valuable because it adds experience, but it should not be overrated. Courage and inventiveness are more valuable skills than simply being older. 

6. Expensive Costs of Learning 

A company adhering to these principles will routinely expose individuals to challenges that are at least a little bit above their current level of expertise. Mistakes will be made, even in a controlled learning environment. Some of these mistakes will cost the company money – for correcting the mistake, or simply for the time lost. 

We look at this cost as one of the cost factors for creating a strong employer brand. It is nothing else, after all. Employer branding requires employee empowerment, and if this empowerment occasionally leads to some cost by mistakes – then it is a completely normal part of budgeting. 

Flipping the Pyramid   

Overall, there is a very simple way to show the philosophy and approach described in one picture. 

The classical business organization still follows an approach that has come out of the industrial revolution, when large groups of often unskilled workers needed to be coordinated and controlled. An approach that became replicated in the bureaucratic structures of larger corporations later. They all base on the historical and militaristic idea that for an organization to function, it requires strict hierarchy: It requires a person on top of the power pyramid, who controls a small number of people just under them, who in turn control a number of people under them, and so on until we reach the lowest level that effectively has nothing to say, but only to function. 

The organization of the future can no longer base on the same approach, because it is per se inflexible, slow, and creates an incentive for superiors to proclaim their authority and for inferiors to make their superior happy – rather than to create an objectively valuable outcome. 

The organization of the future can no longer have the single hero who is the spokesperson, father figure, champion, and sole decision maker of the company, ruling over a mass of staff whose role is to make him (it’s usually him) shine.  

Instead, the organization of the future needs to be a platform. A platform that allows dozens, hundreds, or thousands of individual staff to flourish, to shine, and to make the best use of their talents for the benefit of the organization they are committed to.

This can be shown by flipping the traditional organizational chart, the pyramid with the pharaoh at the top, and putting it on its head: What used to be the bottom becomes the top, showing that it is actually this layer of the organization that is supposed to take most decisions, act as independent as possible, and move the company forward. Under or behind them, you have a layer of mentors who they can turn to when they need, and who also have their own jobs to do. They, in turn, have yet more experienced mentors behind them and a job to do. And at the very end, far from the spotlight, you have the one person whose job is to make this system work: To ensure the right knowledge is available in the right places, to ensure the learning atmosphere remains constructive, and to ensure that new talent gets into the right places. That’s still the CEO, though he (or she!) is now indeed the Chief Education Officer.

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amir naderi
amir naderi

nice article!