Dave Heinzinger is President of Haymaker Group, a NYC-based PR agency working with businesses ranging from startups to the Fortune 500.
When I began my career as an account coordinator in 2007, my mindset was simple: hit my deadlines, be creative, listen, and do solid work. If I wasn’t getting a ton of feedback, that was fine, because I wasn’t getting any negative feedback, and that meant I was doing my job well.
That sort of dynamic is completely unacceptable for today’s young professionals. The reality is that the standards around feedback have shifted dramatically, and the concept of “keeping your head down” is frustratingly outdated for a generation that thrives on knowing exactly where they stand at all times. Whereas no feedback was a good thing to me, for Gen Z, silence is the equivalent of negativity.
For millennial managers, this might feel awkward, but it’s not a bad thing. Gen Z simply demands the transparency we wanted but never felt comfortable asking for. And it’s not just about performance. It’s about growth trajectory and compensation, as well.
That’s why I’ve made a point to constantly talk to my team about growth, regardless of their current title or experience. Every week, I’m having conversations with folks at all levels about how they’re feeling on accounts and in general. It’s important that the team knows I’m available for coffee, lunch, or just a catch-up meeting in a conference room to discuss everything and anything about work.
The best thing an agency can do for its young talent is to support their professional growth in clear, tangible ways. Gen Z employees are motivated by the prospect of advancement and a well-defined trajectory. They’re looking for opportunities for promotions, new responsibilities, and leadership roles. Accordingly, effective managers need to constantly communicate the requirements and milestones for advancement.
It comes down to fostering a feedback-driven culture. Gen Z wants a clear understanding of their performance in real-time. For my fellow millennial managers, this might seem shocking — but just because we didn’t have the benefit of real-time visibility, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t create that for today’s teams.
Prioritizing soft skills
Before Gen Z, the workforce was composed of people who over-indexed on in-person skills, but had shortcomings in terms of tech. Today, that has essentially been flipped on its head. Young professionals are digital natives, but many of them lack the soft skills derived from years of interpersonal interactions.
Given that context, managers shouldn’t assume anything. Helping Gen Z build essential soft skills related to in-person communication is a critical aspect of their professional development, especially in a world where digital interactions have often taken precedence. It’s something we need to carve out and place special emphasis on.
I recently spoke with one of our all-star Gen Z team members and she informed me that when she was first hired, she was completely unsure of in-office etiquette. Things like what to wear were completely foreign. She wondered if she should take a lunch break, and if so, should she eat it at her desk while working. There were uncertainties relating to client comms as well: Zoom calls were terrifying. How to speak to clients, when to unmute, and when to speak up were all completely new muscles that needed development.
It’s important to encourage our young colleagues to always ask questions, no matter how big or small, and to answer them with empathy. Creating space for Gen Z to get out of their heads without fear of judgment will not only boost their confidence, it will improve your team’s overall performance. Beyond the day-to-day, encouraging Gen Z to participate in activities like networking events or in-person client meetings can provide invaluable opportunities to hone skills such as active listening and non-verbal communication.
By emphasizing soft skill growth and creating environments where Gen Z employees can practice and develop them, agencies can empower their youngest colleagues to navigate a broad range of professional scenarios, fostering well-rounded communicators who excel in both virtual and in-person interactions. This not only enhances their individual growth but also contributes to the agency’s overall ability to connect with clients, partners, and the broader industry effectively.
In the early days of my career, team brainstorms unfolded in a big conference room, full of senior team members, and could be a bit intimidating. For today’s young professionals, virtual brainstorming sessions can feel equally awkward, especially without the benefits of in-person communication and nonverbal cues. It’s a lot to ask a young professional to share their creativity in a multi-level setting.
To adapt to this new dynamic, I’ve focused on “unboxing” creative sessions by shifting brainstorms from meetings to asynchronous conversations, facilitated by Slack threads. It might sound simple, but it has yielded fantastic ideas, largely driven by our young team. This approach provides them with the space and time to collect their thoughts and contribute at any point during the day. I’ve gravitated toward feeling similarly for all creative endeavors: If it’s something that requires brainpower, boxing it into an arbitrary meeting is not productive.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over 16+ years in communications, it’s that change is the only constant. Many of the comments I hear projected at Gen Z, like “they’re more difficult to work with” or “they don’t want to work hard,” remind me of the Millennial conversation circa 2007. At some point, Gen Z managers will hear the same things applied to Gen Alpha. The important thing to take away is that adaptation is a good thing. Agencies that embrace new ways of thinking will have happier, more successful and more productive teams, for the long term.