Public Workforce

Managing Young Leaders

West Virginia Cabinet Secretary Robert Ferguson tells how he has sought out, cultivated and kept talented young leaders.
by | May 12, 2010

Heather Kerrigan

Heather Kerrigan is a GOVERNING contributor. She pens the monthly Public Workforce column and contributes to the print magazine.

Last month, I interviewed Tim Abraham, a young employee of the West Virginia Cabinet Secretary's office who started as an intern and moved to a C-level position over the course of five years. This month, West Virginia Cabinet Secretary Robert Ferguson (Tim's boss) tells us how he has sought out, cultivated and kept talented young leaders.

What were your first impressions of Tim?

I think the things that made Tim stand out were that he was well dressed, very articulate, very polite and respectful of those around him. He had a sense of confidence above his age group -- at least what I'm used to. The next thing that really made him stand out -- a touchstone for all young people -- is in the world of technology. Tim was a technology native, whereas people in their 50s are technology immigrants. Tim was born in an age group with a keyboard in his hand. His ability to quickly navigate technology, quickly putting together a complicated spreadsheet or PowerPoint presentation, was spectacular. Coupled with that, he graduated at the top of his class, and he had the ability to take a boss' intent and then develop the how [to achieve it]. It's a whole different skill set-young leaders don't think about hours in the day. Tim has a good focus on mission accomplishment.

What are some of the benefits of hiring young workers?

The beauty of these people -- I call it 'Generation Next' -- is if you're able to get good material right out of college, this is a great place to start because they don't have any preconceived ideas from previous work employment. They're hungry to learn. They want to prove themselves. The analogy is: It's like unmolded clay in a pottery person's hands. The timing is critical-they don't have the people or government experience [to be managers right away].

What are some of the struggles for the young leader in government?

It's not without baggage. There will always be those who believe he's too young. It's the 'corner office' mentality. People in my age bracket used to determine success based on how big your office is. Now, the definitions, the attitudes about work and the pecking order have changed dramatically. We still have pay constraints that require us to pay for longevity rather than performance.

How have you worked to create a culture of acceptance of these younger colleagues?

It varies from personality to personality. I think one element is that folks just accept it. Others see beyond the moment, and have worked with Tim and seen his ability to analyze. They've come to embrace Tim's abilities, thoughts and ideas. A lot of people will be skeptical because of the age. The only way to offer proof is to put him in the mix. Then, there is a greater tendency to embrace [younger colleagues].

But, it's a hard thing for people to operate outside their comfort zone. Because of the American work ethic of the older you are, the greater respect and pay you should get, to have someone come in at a younger age and produce a quality product, it brings with it a healthy skepticism. There is a lot of pressure that Tim puts on himself to overcome that.

How do you help your young leaders navigate government?

This is where the difference in generations and time on the ground makes a difference. Tim has seen the resistance in some forms of government, and doesn't understand it. I try to explain that the pushback he's getting is because the prism that person is looking through is very different than ours. Our job at the secretary cabinet level is to build teamwork and direct the action so that others have the buy-in. You'll never get 100 percent consensus or all of the information you need.

Every day in government, there are very few clear yes and no answers. The perspective and leadership time on the ground [differs from person to person]. Tim sees this, and he'll come and talk to me about it. If a decision is contrary to the way we've worked in the past, I explain the mitigating things that change the way we have to work here.

I liken it to four people playing golf -- one shoots fairway, one sand trap, one woods, and one rough. Four shots later they're all on the green. We all want to get to the same place. The question is: How do you get there in the most efficient way? While Tim may have a vision of how to get straight there, there are other moving pieces in government -- there's friction, transparency and legislative rules. It's not always a quick way to the solution.

What advice would you offer to government managers managing young leaders?

In West Virginia, we recognize that there's a great resource out there with this young talent coming out of college. If we want to build toward the future, we need to be careful how we build our classification system. If we require five years of experience, we cut out that young portion of the job market. I'm working with our division of personnel to change these old school thoughts about the experience you have to have. Government is a great place to cut your teeth in the workforce. We need to mentor young leaders to make sure we have a good government for the future.


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