Being a youth development charity, the work that Halogen Foundation does with schools continuously puts us in daily contact with excellent young people - and many a time this work is done by excellent young people themselves.
I’m talking about our interns. Youths who are still studying in (or awaiting entry into) tertiary institutes and who decide to spend 3-6 months with us on our Halogen Internship Programme. They come from all walks of life, united by a common passion: Impacting the lives of young people, inspiring them to lead themselves and others well.
Interns have historically been seen as a commodity in the HR world, to be used for low-level operational tasks and easing the load during high-peak work seasons. Over recent years, with the explosion of glamourous tech startups and the rise of ‘résumé badge-collecting’, interns have taken on a different angle. They look for one of two things: The potential of a startup going huge and therefore having bragging rights as one of their early ‘employees’, or the brand name of a multi-national company to add to their real-world ‘Pokédex’.
This presents our first conundrum: How do we get interns who are fully committed and engaged in the work that is done, rather than focus on a self-serving intention?
Internships themselves are a peculiar arrangement. Most companies limit the number of internships they take per year as there is usually much more invested than the approved allowance. It is difficult to justify hiring an intern above the obvious lower-tier of financial expense and an extra headcount to defray the weight of heavily operational tasks. There is of course the other benefit that many established companies are maximising on - building their talent pipeline to have first dibs on the top talent that graduate and enter the workforce. But even so, the risk of having these talented individuals leave within a year of joining is extremely high, with a recent study citing 30% of fresh graduates leaving within a year - and 37% of employers recording that most graduates do not stay for more than two years.
This presents the second part of the conundrum: How then do we ensure the loyalty of young workers, beginning at the internship level?
While we don’t dare to claim we know all the right answers, it is safe to say that Halogen Foundation has enjoyed above-average engagement and loyalty traction. Our recent employee engagement numbers from a study done with Aon Hewitt are at 84%, with 30% of our 20-strong staff being converted from an earlier internship, and 45% of them celebrating more than two years with the organisation in January 2018. As a new entrant into this wonderful organisation, it is easy to see why - it starts with our interns and how we give them the unspoken permission to display excellence, and that trickles upwards to the staff who manage them, the managers who lead teams, and the top brass being fully aware of the mantle placed upon them to grow people before growing the organisation.
There are five key actions I’ve distilled in how we build a world-class youth team, and these are things we do actively and consciously. If you have a youth team, or are planning on building a workforce of Millennials and Generation Zs (let’s face it: all of you are) then this is for you.
1. Trust First, Judge Never.
In the ‘Millennials and Gen Z’ study, it’s been found that young people more than any other generation still living have the highest level of intrinsic motivation for work they believe in. When we ask an intern to lead an ice-breaker on their first day, it doesn’t just jolt them out of the comfort zone well into the growth zone. It also sends a message: That we entrust in your hands something that may well make or break the initial customer experience - because your development is our priority, and we are committed to that.
As managers learn to let go and be the first to trust, that trust is reciprocated very quickly. Not least because judgement never comes their way, regardless of whether the first task was a booming success or a complete failure. Our interns know after that instance that they are in a safe space to experiment, take risks, and release a little bit more of their genius into the world.
2. Human First, Partner Second.
The benefit of having a young staff composition is that when interns come in, they immediately feel at home. The culture we’ve built allows for youthful vibrance and expression. But this can be achieved even without beanbags and foosball tables (we don’t have any of those things by the way). The key thing we focus on when anyone new joins us is that we see them first as humans - people who have made the conscious decision to join a charity to make an impact on young lives.
What does this mean? It means that we recognise and appreciate them as partners in the work we do, rather than as employees. Sure, management is a job we perform to lead people to outcomes, but management is a tool not a title. Titles have never got anything done sustainably, but relationships have ensured the longevity of work for generations. Allow for non-work speak openly, and engage the personal sides of your people’s lives. When you see what makes them who they are, you’ll learn what to do to help them become who they can be. And for interns, this is such a differentiating factor.
3. “I Only Win If You Win.”
A big part of streamlining an organisation’s operations involves its targets and performance measures. As we scale up in our work and impact, we want to be able to measure how we as a charity make a tangible change in the lives we interact with, and closely aligned to that are the measures of the team.
Adopting Google’s methods of measurement - more notably the OKR system - has been key in allowing us to do that. What we really like with the OKR system is that each person’s quarterly objectives are directly linked to their manager’s own objectives. This means that if someone fails, they don’t bear the brunt of the failure alone, and it becomes the manager’s job to help her team succeed. What this does is create a significant shift in the way we perceive and reward performance. No longer are persons measured by the excellent work they do themselves, but by the collective excellence displayed by everyone - including interns. When people at every level internalise this, it sets the stage for greater (more exciting) exploits like business innovation.
4. Autonomy Leads To Ownership.
In the book ‘Drive’ written by Daniel Pink, he talks about how motivation works in high-performance teams. One of the key takeaways I had from that book was the need for autonomy to be shared across the whole organisation, and how autonomy can change the way people view their responsibilities.
Unlike the conventional internship, interns who work at Halogen Foundation have a great deal of autonomy in their day-to-day workflow. They also set their own OKRs with their managers, and get to decide how they want to spend their time moving towards the team’s goals and numbers. What we found was that when people are in control of their own work and their own processes, there are only two possible outcomes:  They do really high-quality work that you can see much effort in, or  they cannot perform due to a gap in competence (but not a gap in effort and commitment). In the first outcome, the benefit is clear. In the second outcome however, while you face a short-term speed bump in team performance, the benefit is even larger - because now as the intern’s manager, you can see clearer their development roadmap and help them close the competence gap very quickly. Autonomy gives control away, and this control gives them permission to take ownership.
5. Build Competence For Their Next Step.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?” Interviewers ask this popular question to assess a variety of attributes: Future-orientedness, loyalty, growth trajectory, etc. We ask this question for one main reason: We want to help the candidate, if selected, to get to that 5-year vision. Most people see their time with Halogen Foundation as a stepping stone - it becomes our job as leaders of the organisation to make this the best stepping stone ever.
It’s hard for most leaders to accept that their company is a stepping stone. It posits that the organisation did not provide an experience worth staying for. But this is not the case. What we’ve found and learnt is that by actively building their competence, their attachment; the association to the organisation’s human brand value, increases tremendously. The contrarian idea is that as you see your organisation as a stepping stone for young people, the more they see it as a place they want to stay associated to and give back to. One of our earliest interns, despite spending merely 6 months with us, left with a connection that lasts to this day, tangibly manifesting in a charity fundraiser she held for us of her own volition. Building competence in your people increases their self-confidence, and allows them to tackle larger challenges. And if you’re using internships as a tool to build your talent pipeline, this becomes one of the most important things you can do for the youths who walk through your doors.
Again, I don’t think we’ve cracked the code yet. Over the past 14 years of Halogen Foundation’s existence, we’ve seen three different classes of youths pass through: The late Gen Ys, the Millennials, and now the advent of Gen Zs. How we deal with young people has to evolve, and we are now working with what research calls the ‘most impact-driven generation’. It’s important to recognise our unique and privileged positions as leaders, and use this to help the next generation become exemplary citizens and leaders themselves.
If you're a manager, I'd love to hear your thoughts on what it takes to build a world-class team of Millennials and Gen Zs. Reach out to me - let's chat.
If you're between 18-25 yourself, or you know someone who is a Millennial/Gen Z youth looking for an interesting place to learn and grow, join us as an intern - I can personally promise the best culture to not just impact young lives, but to be impacted and developed yourself.
(Timothy Low is the Chief Operating Officer of Halogen Foundation, a youth development charity focusing on building young leaders and entrepreneurs. Prior to this, he founded a training consultancy, tenured as Entrepreneur-in-Residence in an L&D firm, and led an accelerator-VC programme for deep-tech startups. Tim is also an Ambassador for Sandbox Singapore hub, a member at Kairos Society ASEAN, and volunteers as a youth leader in his church. This post first appeared on Halogen 360.)