The ‘First Generation Executive’ Conundrum

This article appeared in the Institute of Directors SA magazine, Directorship, and comprises of the views, thoughts, and feelings of their newly appointed Chair, Venete Klein.


Young people entering the business world today need training, development and mentoring to succeed. They also need their companies to give them a chance to demonstrate their capabilities.

South African businesses are faced with a unique challenge today, in that many of the young people entering the business world are what can be described as ‘first generation executives’. What this means, says Venete Klein, Chairperson of the Institute of Directors SA (IoDSA), is that these people come from families where neither of their parents were executives, and as such, they cannot ask business advice from those closest to them.

This means that they face a particularly harsh learning curve in the corporate world, and without the right kind of management, it is likely their talent will not have the opportunity to shine through.

“We are at a stage in our country’s development where we are catapulting a lot of young people from a range of races and cultures, not to mention from both sexes, into an extremely tough arena. That is not to say that they do not have the talent and the ability to cope, but instead that business needs to focus more strongly on developing them and providing them with the knowledge and the right foundation to ensure they can succeed in the long run,” says Klein.

“It is critical that businesses find ways to enable these first generation executives to express the talent they clearly have, if we are to build a strong platform for our future. However, the prevailing attitude seems to be to leave them to their own devices and then when they fail, to blame them and say they simply weren’t good enough.”

Tackling the challenge

Klein explains that while there is no doubt that the education system is grappling with its own issues, there remains the potential for organisations to work more closely with schools and build a system that allows for practical exposure to the workplace.

“I believe this should form part of the school syllabus across the board, and that successful business people should be invited to come and speak at schools and impress upon the learners the manner in which the business world operates. This should definitely be part of the curriculum and should be formalised between the Department of Education and big business.”

Of course, she adds, to formalise such a process, it would be important for government to adopt a quid pro quo approach, so that the companies also get something in return. Klein suggests some form of tax breaks or making such an approach part of an organisation’s ongoing corporate social investment responsibility.

“It is important to move beyond the current view of education being only about books and theory. There clearly needs to be a practical aspect to it so that learners can get a hands-on feel for business and come to grips early on with the issues that surround it.”

For those learners that do advance into the business world, the next crucial step from an organisational perspective is to enable an environment which is conducive to allowing these people to develop their full potential.

“Mentorship is an integral part of talent management, but it must be proper mentorship, where the mentor walks the road with the learner and helps with their development. The mentor needs to take the dreams of the learner to heart, in order to help them get where they want to go and needs to always have their best interests at heart, otherwise it will be a wasted exercise.”

Overcoming prejudice

According to Klein, most organisations already have some form of cadet, trainee or talent management programme, so it is clear that from this angle, there is a level of commitment to assisting the development of young people. However, she adds, the real issue is what is done with them once they graduate from these programmes. Too often, they are ignored and fail to receive the recognition or promotion they deserve.

As an example of this, Klein points to how often women are side-lined in an organisation, despite the clear benefits they can offer. “I believe that corporations that truly want to increase their value proposition should be more focused on promoting women up the ranks, as women bring a completely different focus, both emotionally and mentally, to the business. The same could be said of people of different races or cultures.”

“Ultimately, businesses need to be assisting these first time executives to gain a ‘seat at the table’. It is all very well training, skilling and developing these people, but unless the company puts its money where its mouth is and actually promotes them into key roles, they are merely paying lip service to the concept.”

“Furthermore, if the business does promote them to a level commensurate with their skills, the others around the table need to offer their full support. They need to encourage these first time executives to demonstrate what new aspects they bring to the collective, rather than merely viewing them as just another box to be ticked in the race or gender space.”

Klein believes that it is vital that companies ensure that they do promote from within their talent management programmes. She suggests that those people who have been through these programmes and who have nonetheless consistently missed out on promotions eventually become non-believers. In other words, they either stop giving their all to the company or they seek employment elsewhere.

“It is a travesty, as far as I am concerned, that there is so much latent talent available to organisations, and yet they fail to make use of it. Such underutilised brilliance eventually becomes another cost factor for the business, as productivity decreases and enthusiasm wanes. It can even lead to the work environment becoming quite unpleasant, as these overlooked individuals become – understandably enough – quite combative with their colleagues.”

The way forward

There are so many young people being catapulted into key roles in enterprises today who, despite being fully qualified academically, simply do not have the battle scars to carry them through challenges that may arise. It is this lack of experience that we most need businesses to address, states Klein.

“It is not that difficult from the organisation’s point of view either – all it requires is some serious executive coaching and a bit of hand-holding from someone who has already walked the trenches.”

Of course, there remains a lot of inequality in the workplace today, which will also need to be overcome if the organisations are to truly experience the benefits these first time executives can offer the company.

“Those at the top of the hierarchy need to be prepared to start sharing power with the next generation, without concern for their sex, their race or their culture. Only in this way can they gain access to the fresh ideas such people bring to the business and possibly even learn new things themselves.”

“Promoting these people into more senior positions can quite easily provide a real competitive edge, thanks to their unique views and their ability to tackle a challenge from a different angle. And the company will have already spent money on their development, via its various talent management programmes, so it is only logical to thus make effective use of these talented individuals.”

Klein suggests that proper training and the judicious promotion of these first generation executives will give those organisations that adopt this route a definite edge. Not only will they actually be living the richness of the rainbow nation, but more critically, they will be exposed to new viewpoints and ideas, which could offer a distinct competitive advantage in the long run.

“For these first time executives to truly succeed, enterprises must be prepared to give them wings and encourage them to fly. If organisations are prepared to not only train and mentor these executives properly, but also to demonstrate confidence in their abilities through promotion to more senior positions, these enterprises will increase their value propositions exponentially,” she concludes.




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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