Wim van Hennekeler

Young employees

Young employees

Young employees are digital natives with a digital mindset in many areas like marketing, strategy, customer experience and the impact of the company on climate and society. So why are they often excluded from setting the company’s direction in these areas? Untapping the potential of young employees is becoming a critical success factor.

The untapped potential of young employees

A recent IMD study by Jennifer Jordan and Michael Sorell highlights a number of great transformational and strategic successes delivered by companies that set up “Shadow Boards” of young employees. For example, fashion company Gucci started this in 2015 as a strategic advisor to their executives. In the next few years, Gucci’s sales doubled. This was triggered by the success of their internet and digital strategies that were highly impacted by this shadow board. Sales from direct competition that did not make a similar change dropped over this period. The IMD study also contains interesting examples of shadow boards of young employees from the hospitality and paper sector, so this is definitely not just about the lifestyle industry. (1)

A couple of weeks ago I heard Henk Volberda, professor Strategic Marketing and Innovation at the University of Amsterdam, speak about his recent research on young workers. This study revealed that young entrepreneurs on average find the impact of their business on society and on the climate significantly more important than previous generations. This impact is often their "purpose" and a key driver of their business. (2)

Why is it, in a world where there is no strategy without digital transformation anymore, that younger generations are often excluded from setting the company’s direction? Why is strategy development a thing for seasoned executives who mainly built their careers in the pre-digital world? Why are companies trying to reduce their carbon footprint and enhance their positive impact on society without mobilizing their young frontrunners?

What young employees have in common is that they grew up in a rapidly digitizing world. A year or two ago, new colleagues in my company who recently graduated had formed a community. This was facilitated and enabled by the organization, so the team could share their experiences, learn from each other and raise any concerns they had. They came together as a team twice a year and organized calls or videoconferences in the intermediate periods. They called their bi-annual meeting their “Offline”. I thought that funny. What others would describe as a “get together”, or “event”, or just “meeting”, to them was their “offline”. This was just before the Covid-19 crisis kicked in, so it was not even inspired by the many virtual sessions that have emerged since people work from home more often. “Online“ was their day-to-day world already. They had never experienced another one. Offline was the exception to the rule.

The mindset of millennials and their successors, the Z generation, is more “digital” than of older generations. In fact, they are digital natives. They are used to tailor made and personalized marketing and customer service. They would not expect anything else. Human centric design is key for them, both in what appeals to them and in anything they draft themselves. Ubiquity of information and data is a given. In terms of risks the younger generations see cyber security as the key area. And finally, the “purpose” of the company as well as its impact on society and climate often mean a lot to them.

For our own company a “level skipping” task force of young people was initiated to develop a strategy on partnering with scale-ups. This was done in close collaboration and interaction with experts and managers of various backgrounds. Still, the young team was the driving force. The end result was their plan, sponsored by senior folks, who sometimes changed their opinion in certain areas having been challenged by the team. Needless to say, the eventual deliverable was excellent work.

In many recent strategy programs or co-innovation initiatives that I ran with client organizations, lots of value was created by the input from young people with a fresh mindset and viewpoint in their interaction with others. Diverse teams deliver better results anyhow, but the age dimension of diversity is often underestimated still.

Traditional learning models are based on the assumption that young people learn from more experienced people. In today’s hybrid organizations this learning paradigm is becoming hybrid as well. Sure, young people still learn from more experienced colleagues. Yet, in return they provide new and unique learning opportunities for their senior colleagues themselves.

Where to start? Gucci focused the input of the shadow board of young employees on their marketing and digital strategy, which was where their fresh perspective added almost immediate value. Similarly, the mission of the task force that I mentioned to develop a strategy for partnering with scale-ups, was a deliberate choice, as scale-ups are relatively young companies themselves as well. It is a good thing to start in areas where the young perspective adds specific and obvious value. This helps overcome initial resistance or cynicism within the organization. For example, few would doubt that it makes sense when a team of young employees advises on how to attract and retain more young customers. In the company’s journey to untap the potential of its young employees, extending to other relevant areas then becomes an easier thing to do.


(1) Jennifer Jordan and Michael Sorell, ‘Why You Should Create a “Shadow Board” of Young Employees’, HBR, 4 June 2019

(2) Interview with Henk Volberda on AT5, 26 March 2021

© Wim van Hennekeler, 2021