Learning in practice: sage advice from young colleagues

Practise what you preach, and that includes generational diversity. At the Social Development Department (DSO) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, management team (MT) meetings are attended not only by seven senior managers, but also four young colleagues. The idea for a ‘Young MT’ came from policy officer Annemarie Dezentje and was immediately embraced by former DSO director Pascalle Grotenhuis. The Young MT takes part in discussions about nearly any topic.

Pascalle Grotenhuis (left) and Annemarie Dezentje (right)
Image: ©Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Pascalle Grotenhuis (left) and Annemarie Dezentje (right)

The MT meetings were like a black box according to Annemarie Dezentje. Younger members of the department had no idea what was discussed there. And then Annemarie, who is on the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Task Force, got an idea.

‘I’d read an article about a company that was increasingly involving younger employees in decision-making and I thought: why isn’t there a platform for young people’s voices at DSO?’ ‘Inclusion and diversity are key policy themes in our work, so it’s a bit odd that we don’t put this into practice ourselves.’ During a walk with her director Pascalle, Annemarie explained her idea. ‘I was a bit nervous, so I’d rehearsed what I was going to say on the train.’

Blind spots

Annemarie’s pitch was successful and Pascalle immediately warmed to the idea. ‘My first thought was: let’s do it. Everyone in the management team is between 40 and 60 years old. We might not be aware of it, but there are always going to be blind spots. I believe other generations look differently at certain topics, such as human resources policy. The proposal to set up a Young MT is essentially about taking responsibility. And that’s what the Young MT has done. And of course the management team is more than willing to give colleagues that responsibility. The strength of this idea, in my opinion, is the fact that it was proposed by younger colleagues, so that automatically gives it more merit.’

After this first talk, Annemarie and other young colleagues pitched the idea to the entire management team. Nearly everyone responded enthusiastically to the idea of forming a Young MT made up of staff members under 35, though a few expressed some reservations.

‘We agreed that the Young MT can join in on any topic except confidential personnel-related matters, such as reviewing job candidates,’ Pascalle says. ‘The Young MT doesn’t have a formal, statutory task, but they’re welcome to give their views – asked and unasked.’

Sitting down together

It was also exciting for the members of the Young MT. ‘After all, you’re sitting down with your boss,’ Annemarie says. ‘At the same time, as a platform the Young MT enables a straightforward, functional discussion of work topics with the managers.’

One of the topics in the first meeting was the temporary job contracts that many young colleagues have. ‘Members of the management team have permanent contracts,’ Annemarie says. ‘They don’t know what it’s like to work on a temporary contract, and the uncertainty that comes with it. The young colleagues really opened their eyes. The first meeting was very effective and totally underscored the added value of a Young MT.’

Differences in work pressure

Each division is represented in the Young MT, bringing the total to four young members. They’ve also advised the management team on programme management tasks. ‘These are tasks that an experienced policy officer can do quickly and easily, but they’re sometimes more time-consuming for younger policy officers, since they prefer to check things with a colleague before submitting something for approval. This was an valuable insight.’

‘We found out that the pressure of work on young colleagues was so high that it affected their job satisfaction,’ Pascalle says. ‘So their input on this was really valuable.’

The young colleagues also advised their MT on the topic of communication. ‘I’m all for transparency and was sure we’d got everything right in our communication. The Young MT thought differently about that,’ Pascalle recalls. ‘They held up a mirror to us and proposed changing the order in which we communicate things. This allows us to share a lot more at DSO-wide meetings. Such a simple suggestion, but I couldn’t have come up with it myself.’

Advice from our own people

The pilot ran for one year and Pascalle recommends giving it ample time. ‘There’s plenty of attention at BZ for diversity in its broader sense, but less for generational diversity,’ she says. ‘Achieving diversity in age isn’t really feasible at the level of the management team, because by the time someone becomes a manager they’re not 26 anymore. That’s why a Young MT is such a brilliant idea. We’ve benefitted from it so much that we’re keen to continue with it.’

Pascalle has since been promoted to a new role and has passed on the Young MT’s recommendations to her successor. ‘It is very valuable to receive advice from our own staff members, asked and unasked. It’s sage advice from our own people.’

Chipping in sooner

What are the main lessons learned? For Annemarie it’s the fact that the MT is much more open to input than she thought. ‘As a young person you’re taken seriously. I was able to chip in sooner than I expected. I also have a better understanding of how things work in the larger scheme of things, and how decisions are made. That’s boosted my self-confidence.’

‘Our faith in the Young MT was completely justified,’ Pascalle says. ‘So if there’s a next time, I won’t hesitate to say “let’s do it” again. Many decisions now have broader support because the MT also took account of the input given by the Young MT. MT meetings with eleven people might seem a lot, but it doesn’t really matter if there are seven or eleven people at the table. And the Young MT members always do their homework, though we could be stricter about ensuring everyone gets all the documentation on time. Thanks to the Young MT, the management team now manages the department better.’

Annemarie agrees: ‘Organisations are better when they’re more inclusive. They’re more innovative, more creative and solve problems more effectively. So of course the younger generation needs to be part of that. There’s a personal side to this as well. For me, it’s an opportunity to explore if I want to grow into management roles. So it’s definitely been inspirational for me in that regard.’

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