If our Chambers of Commerce are going to continue to be the “voice for business” in our communities, if they are going to continue to deliver valuable benefits to business-owners everywhere regardless of their membership status, and if they are going to continue to play a vital role in the economic development of our cities and towns, we are going to have to face the ugly truth: the Millennials are coming! If you’re like many of the Chamber executives I heard from at the Western Association of Chamber Executives’ annual conference earlier this month, you’re probably sick to death of hearing about “the greatest shift in human capital the US has ever seen”…but it’s real and it’s happening right before our eyes. Gen Y employees are some of the most aggressive self-promoters out there. When I hear people call them “egotistical” and complain that they suffer from a “sense of entitlement”, what they’re really saying is “These kids want it all and they want it NOW!” OK…it’s YOUR job to GIVE IT to them, Chamber pro! That’s what we do for ALL of our members, isn’t it? We find out what the need and we deliver!
Now, I could go into a long dissertation on the trends and the demographics and the specifics of who these young people are and what makes them tick, but I’d rather just leave you with six CRITICAL needs and the strategies you can utilize to address them in order to recruit, engage and retain younger members towards a sustainable, long-term future for your organization. Let’s dig in!
- Get them IN: In order to benefit from the knowledge that these young up and comers are…well…up and coming, we have to get them involved in our Chambers. Some of you have established Young Professional groups and some of you have long since done away with similar programs because they had devolved into “booze and schmooze” events or worse. While I’m not going to debate the merits of having (or disbanding) a YP program in this post, I will say that it’s important to identify the leaders of tomorrow and get them on your side. The absolute easiest way to do this is to ask your existing membership who already employ some very strong, young people, and get them to point out the best of the best to you. Let your members know that you’re on their side in providing the kind of personal and professional development opportunities these Gen Y’ers want…opportunities the business-owner can’t provide without your help! Trust me when I tell you that these young people will appreciate the ego boost of being supported by their employers, and they will be eager to see how you can help them get ahead.
- Get them a MENTOR: Mentorship programs help younger professionals accelerate the “experience curve” by introducing them to the current leaders in the community. Whatever you do, don’t waste the chance to make it a two-way learning opportunity. Pair up a member who needs to learn how to engage the younger generation in his own business with a Gen Y professional looking to make higher-level contacts and you’ve got a win-win scenario that will have the Chamber seen as the valuable partner who made it all happen.
- Get them some EXPERIENCE: Leadership programs exist in just about every mid-sized to large community out there. Partner with an existing program in your home town or create your own, but teach young people what it means to be a community leader and how they can get involved in supporting the development of the city they call home, and they’ll engage!
- Get them INVOLVED: You’ve identified them, spent some significant time helping them meet the movers and shakers in town and gotten them some valuable leadership training. Now it’s time to put them to work! Find a volunteer position for them at the Chamber. Remember, they want it all, and they want it NOW…but so do you! You need them on your committees and you need them in your boardroom to help shape the future of your Chamber. Don’t just TALK about diversity. Take action and get these young leaders involved early. Some may not believe that they’ve quite earned their stripes yet, but they have the tools to learn so much more quickly than we did coming up PLUS you’ve been putting time and energy into building them into the leaders you need them to be. Put them on the field and let them take some swings!
- Get them PLUGGED IN: We are BIG fans of the Candidate Academies that seem to be popping up in every corner of the country. There was a time when it took an entire career to get someone ready to serve in public office, but that moment is gone. We’re seeing younger and younger elected officials in even the largest metropolitan areas. These young people have the drive and determination to succeed, an innate ability to work towards a common cause and they have time to make big things happen. They would be FABULOUS cheerleaders for the business community that “created” them, and then could become wonderful champions for your Chamber and its interests on City or County Council. Help train them to run a successful campaign, and you reap the benefits yet again.
- Get them OUT: Most of these programs have age restrictions on them, with participants “aging out” at 40 years or so. Don’t go to all the trouble of identifying them, training them, preparing them and building them into the model citizen you asked them to become, only to watch them fade away from the Chamber because you didn’t have an “exit strategy” in place to move them from “young professional” status to “long-term member” status. Not every young person is going to aspire to public office or community involvement. We don’t run these programs expecting every graduate to become Mayor…we run them to produce leaders. Help them transition into “full membership” and you’ll never have to worry about retention…you’ll have done enough on the ENGAGEMENT front early in their careers that they’ll understand the real value proposition your organization brings to the table.
It’s big work with lofty goals, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Chamber professionals in the last 10 years, it’s simply this: You were all BORN to do big work and achieve lofty goals. This IS the largest shift in human capital we’ve ever seen, but with leaders like we have in the Chamber of Commerce industry, we’re ready!