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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


How Does a Leader Build a Work Ethic in a Recent Graduate? Part 2

Yesterday, I told the story of how so many of the students we work with, who have a 4.0 GPA, have never had to work a day in their life. When they come to work with us for a project or in an internship it is their first exposure to a high-energy team working hard to fulfill a mission. We love them—but we are the first to introduce them to the idea of a “work ethic.”

Like any generation of students, kids today bring to the job a sense of idealism, hope and creativity that we adults need. On the other hand, young people are conditioned by a culture of speed, convenience and leisure. Society celebrates these components. Sadly, they reduce the chances that kids will bring a strong work ethic to their first job. In countless survey results I peruse, I continue to hear supervisors moan:

  • Kids today don’t want to start at the bottom of the ladder.
  • Students refuse to “pay their dues.”
  • Young people seem nonchalant about their work ethic.

My guess is, we all wrestle with this. If you oversee a young person on the job, you may wonder: How do you communicate a vision for a strong work ethic to someone who’s completely new to real-life-experience? Let me suggest a few ideas.

1. Discuss specific expectations with them up front; have candid conversations about reality of working conditions and expectations. In our office, we only take people who exhibit high-energy temperaments. Others can’t keep up. In the spirit of transparent disclosure, we tell them that up front.

2. Explain to them that while they may be at the beginning of their career they likely possess one trait that every team needs. The one thing a young intern DOES have is energy and passion. They may have no work experience, but they have the ability to come in early and stay late. Let them know how valuable that is to you.

3. Model what you want. Take them with you and have them shadow you on projects you expect them to work on later. Show them how you and other team members approach the task. Then let them know they don’t have to emulate your methods, (you value their creativity), but you do want them to share your work ethic.

4. Describe what success looks like. Most young people enter a job asking: Where do I fit? What do you value in me? Consequently, at Growing Leaders, we unveil exactly what we look for. It can be summarized in three words: initiative, high energy, and a strong work ethic. This is something we demand in every intern. For team members, we hire for three elements as well: character, competence and chemistry.

Near the intern desks in our office, we’ve hung a framed sign that reads: “When you were young, you were told to be polite and not to take anything. At Growing Leaders there are some items we DO want you to take. Please take responsibility, take initiative and take ownership.”

Nuff said. Is there anything you would add to the list above?



  1. Robert Macy on August 3, 2011 at 9:20 am

    Do you mind if I borrow the last paragraph for my office? I’ll give you credit.

    • Tim Elmore on August 9, 2011 at 3:24 pm

      I would love for you to pass it along. I hope your office finds it inspiring!

  2. Dclouser on August 4, 2011 at 3:20 am

    Having a “high energy temperament” doesn’t necessarily ensure that a person has a good work ethic. Many quieter, more introspective people have a huge contribution to make to the workplace. Many with high energy are not good listeners and do not think before they leap. It seems unfair to equate having a high energy temperament with having a good work ethic! I do agree with you, though, that the younger generation needs to be taught a good work ethic – ALL of them, not just the high energy ones.

    • Tim Elmore on August 9, 2011 at 3:15 pm

      By using the term high energy, I didn’t mean to exclude introverted people. Our team consists of both introverts and extroverts and I believe we are stronger for it.

      But I am connecting the importance of energy level, or maybe stamina is a better word, with a strong work ethic. We have hired interns in the past who never worked a 40-hour workweek in their life and have had trouble completing 8-hour workdays. This is the type of low energy I was referring, too. After a few experiences like this, we are much more specific in our interviews about our expectations and the prior work experience of applicants.

  3. Trent Thomas on August 5, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Great points Dr. Elmore.  I would add to take risks, take criticism, take compliments, and take personal inventory

    • Tim Elmore on August 9, 2011 at 3:06 pm

      Great additions, Trent! Thanks for posting!

  4. Clay Morgan on August 22, 2011 at 8:51 am

    I like it. I’ve been thinking about exactly what type of person I need as I’m about to hire a couple interns. We usually know it when we see it, but I like the particulars you focus on in your search. I also like the additions by Trent. 

    I’m curious. Do you find that job searches have taken longer over the years? Would that be a natural reflection of that changing culture, making it harder to find the right young people for your organization?

    • Tim Elmore on August 22, 2011 at 4:30 pm

      I would say yes and no. As we’ve refined our process, it does take longer to find the right people to fit the job. But, because we know what we’re looking for, things move much faster when we find a good fit. It’s definitely been a work in progress. I hope the tips help you refine your process and find great interns!

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How Does a Leader Build a Work Ethic in a Recent Graduate? Part 2