Over the years, I have had the incredible privilege to work alongside many young adults. One thing that has always astounded me is how much they are able to teach me with their creativity, ideas, and resilience. But, if I’m being honest, I have had to push back many times on the pressure from more senior colleagues to “mold” these young people into versions of themselves that will fit in best with whatever work environment I’m in at the time.
Maybe it’s my counselling background that makes me reject that notion. As someone thrust into a position of mentorship so often, the only goal I have when working with young people is to help them find their own voice in a world filled with the pressures presented by so many of those senior colleagues. Well, okay, that may not be my ONLY goal – before I can assert I’m any better than the next person, I should admit that I do sometimes want to guide someone in a particular direction… but it’s done (hopefully) in a way that’s transparent and still affords them agency.
As an example, I can recall one summer where I was tasked to supervise a young graphic artist as he put together some promotional art for an event. His first draft was not impressive to me. While I am no artist myself, I just felt that what he produced didn’t look appealing and I couldn’t understand what he was going for in the first place. Resisting the urge to tell him what he should do instead, I asked him to explain his concept and I was blown away. Although I couldn’t see it with what he had presented me, I genuinely loved his idea. So, we started chatting. I told him that I wasn’t entirely sure the image he showed me conveyed the concept in a way that was as obvious as our audience would need it to be. I also shared with him my concerns that from a professional standpoint (considering the branding of our office), it wasn’t quite polished enough. With that feedback in mind, I asked him if he had any thoughts about how those items could be addressed in a way that would stay true to his vision. He had many ideas and with some collaborative brainstorming, we came up with even more together. From that shift onward, he started drafting some new options – all of which kept the heart of his original concept, but mitigated my concerns, too.
I bring this up because I think avoiding that temptation to “mold” someone is important. I don’t want a person to feel like their voice or creativity is sucked away from being supervised by me. I want them to have a say and I would like to advocate for them, so they can look back and feel a genuine sense of accomplishment. To me, that is way more meaningful than having someone simply deliver whatever I think may be the best idea.
Of course, offering that guidance is still crucial. When I counselled young people applying to graduate school, I had to review their personal essays and offer feedback to help guide them to success. I remember one occasion where I made a giant X on a young woman’s essay and seeing the shock on her face, I had to reassure her that on a technical level, her writing was great. But, from the experience I had, I knew the admissions committee wanted to see different connections between her story and their program. Through some questioning (a theme with me, if you notice), she came up with great new points and was willing to put the work in and start from scratch to better articulate her journey in a way that would mean something to her audience. As she left the counselling centre, I heard a friend of hers ask, “how’d it go?” She replied, “good. I have work to do, but I know what I want to say now.”
Like in my first example, that incident was insightful for me. It shows a balance between offering guidance and providing space for someone to flourish independently. So, at the risk of sounding too preachy, or telling anyone reading this what to do, I’d encourage you to ask yourself the following questions before giving advice to someone junior to you:
- What is the purpose of my advice?
- What outcome do I want?
- How important is it that my ideas/suggestions get integrated? Will the project’s success hinge on my vision being executed?
- If I don’t get “my way,” what does that mean? Is anyone at a loss?
- What do I want to achieve from the process of supervising/supporting this person? What do I need to achieve from the outcomes of their work?
I’m sure sometimes you’ll need to be more hands-on, and we all have different leadership styles, which is understandable. However, it is my hope that if all of us are more intentional before we speak – especially to someone who is impressionable, eager, and blossoming, we’ll feel as proud of ourselves as they’ll feel when they try to deliver and express themselves.