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Leading the Way

Empowering young workers to present themselves well

This spring, at a presentation by a guest lecturer on a local college campus, I noticed that many students—although an attentive audience—were dressed as though they'd just rolled out of bed, sporting slippers, flannel pants, old sweatshirts, baseball caps, and hair in messy ponytails.

These students, who showed great interest and stayed afterward to speak with the presenter, didn't realize they were missing an opportunity: Here was a respected professor they could possibly work with in the future. And while their interaction said they took her seriously, the way in which they presented themselves made it appear that they didn't take themselves seriously.

How could we help those new to our workplace, seeking employment, or in the developmental stages of their career understand the importance of how they present themselves? In a landscape with shifting norms of professional appearance, technology usage, and methods of communication, how could experienced workers provide guidance—without seeming preachy?

Jennifer Maxson, Practice Group Leader at Varnum Consulting in Grand Rapids, Michigan, provides some tips for mentoring the young people in our lives—whether our sons and daughters, other relatives, students, colleagues, employees, or friends—to help them be successful in the business world.

When mentoring, Maxson says, it's vital to establish a relationship before you begin dispensing your wisdom. "Before you can even approach them with the mentoring piece, you need to connect and build trust. Get to a point where you understand who they are." She also recommends a relaxed approach, versus forced mentoring. "Don't go straight to, 'I need to help you.'"

If you are in a leadership role, consider these suggestions:

  • If you have an intern moving into the position of full-time staff member, building confidence may be an area where you can help. "Whether in terms of taking dress and grooming up a step, or being more of a presence at company meetings, encourage them to 'own it'—after all, they're a tried and true employee." Encourage them to look and play the part.
  • Help young employees see themselves as active contributors. Before a meeting, discuss preparing several questions, solutions, or talking points related to agenda items, so they will be ready to engage rather than merely observing.
  • Before a networking event, say, "Here's what we're going to do ..." and take a few minutes to talk about who you hope to connect with and what will happen at the event. Don't overwhelm them—just give them a couple of tips.
  • Before a special event, meeting, or conference, discuss what it will be like, and what will be expected. Say, "I want this event to go really well for you," and relay a few specific tips. Ask if they have questions.

Dress Code
Having a clear dress code could alleviate many problems; still, employees might dress in a manner that keeps them from moving forward. Sometimes, young women mistake "fancy" for "professional," and dress in ways seemingly more appropriate for a party than the workplace. When they've obviously made an effort, how do you gently redirect them? "Encourage volunteers, interns, and new employees to dress to fit within the organization. They want to be remembered for the right reasons." Before an event, talk about what other people will be wearing as part of your "game plan prep," so the tone of the event is clear.

Transitioning Teens
You may have children (or grandchildren or other family members) at an age where they are doing school-to-work visits, applying for their first jobs, working as volunteers, or otherwise stepping into the professional world. Maxson recommends coaching them in several areas:

  • Teach your child how to introduce him or herself, using first and last names, making eye contact, and giving a proper handshake. Practice a few times, and teach him or her to use this skill, instead of waiting for someone else to make the first move.
  • Teach your child to be intentional about dress when visiting a business, whether as an employee, a volunteer, or a visitor. Look to fit within the organization, and give outfits a test run. Can you lean over to pick something up, plug in a cord, and complete other likely tasks without exposing skin or making yourself feel awkward? Let your child know it is your goal to help him or her feel confident and comfortable.
  • Discuss details that could make a negative impression, such as silly cellphone ringtones, goofy e-mail addresses, fidgeting, and improper posture.

Written by Jennifer Reynolds, staff writer for Groups Today magazine.

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