By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

Beyond the actual work tasks, the product you’re churning out, and the measurable goals you and your team are working to achieve, there is a critically important role that all managers play: helping their new professionals (in particular, though certainly this could be said for all your employees) learn how to show up every day and be a professional. This may sound like it’s not your project. But, in fact it is, even more so in today’s workplace. And, whether you choose to take on this role or not, you should know that your words and your actions, every day, are demonstrating what you expect in terms of behavior and engagement. So why not put some intentionality behind it?

For new professionals in particular, these learning moments are critical. It can be easy to bring on new employees and make assumptions about what they do and don’t know about work, being in community with other adults, professional demeanor and meeting your expectations. But for many young employees, literally nothing in their life up to this moment has looked like, or prepared them, for this. They have spent sixteen-plus years on academic schedules, sitting in classrooms with their peers, taking courses with identified start and end dates as well as clear measures for success. At least twice a year they have been able to begin again with a clean slate.

From a process standpoint, there is nothing about college, or the educational system, that prepares anyone for the process of work or for life. If they are lucky, they will have had prior work experience with developmental feedback built into that experience. But many will not have had this, before, and they will be looking to you for guidance. On top of which, today’s new professional has spent most of the past two years locked in their home or their room, engaging with others over a screen. They have lacked some critical social and professional development opportunities.

We like the idea of scaffolding skills. In college, this looks like learning how to do college-level work as a first-year student, before being asked to submit an honors thesis as a senior. It also looks like learning how to live with a roommate in a residence hall before moving off campus to an apartment. There is something important that happens in this learning process. We have to learn how to solve the small problems so that we can solve the big ones. We have to learn how to make the small decisions so that we acquire the tools to make the big ones.

You should think about work the same way. Ask yourself:

  • What will your new employee need to know how to do a year from now, and how can you start to implement the building blocks for that, now?
  • What are one or two small projects I can give them, with measurable deliverables, during their first few weeks or months? How do these connect to the larger vision and mission of the organization? (This shouldn’t just be busy work.)
  • When will I have regular feedback conversations about their progress?
  • When and how am I clearly communicating the why behind their work?
  • When and how can I “level up” their work, giving them increasing amounts of responsibility and autonomy?
  • How will I measure success and communicate that?

Something we hear a lot from new professionals is that the reality of the work doesn’t live up to their expectations. This may be because the work truly is just busy work and beneath their skill set and capabilities. But more often than not, it’s because no one has bothered to talk to them about why their work matters and how it connects to the organization. They aren’t being provided the feedback and coaching that will help them connect this experience to their longer-term career goals. Anyone would be de-motivated by this experience, new professional or otherwise.

Think about scaffolding skills through intentional experiences and then have accompanying conversations about what they are learning, and why. Sure, it’s a lot of work. It’s an investment of time. It might feel like your new employee needs a lot of coaching and feedback, and they do. But that’s what you signed up for when you decided to become a people manager. If you don’t want to do the work, then you should think about giving that opportunity to someone else.

For more information on effective management, check out Year One, our resource for new professionals in their first year after college.

Scaffolds on a building with workers climbing on it