Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation
Wednesday, February 17, 2016
As students trickled into the auditorium style classroom at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, you could tell they were a bit different from the generations that came before them. The glow of laptops filled the room one by one as cellphones remained tightly clasped in their hands. A few notebooks and wooden pencils were still present as a gentle reminder of the past, but it was clear, times have indeed changed.
After a brief introduction, SC Campaign CEO Forrest Alton, made his way to the front of the room. A former graduate student at the Arnold School of Public Health and a 2011 recipient of the Gerry Sue Arnold Award, Alton was set to present to a group of soon to be entry-level job applicants a presentation entitled, The Importance of Leadership. For many in the audience, the obvious question would seem to be, “How can I lead when I’ve never worked in this field before?” For Alton, the answer is easy. “Nobody in any organization has exclusive rights to leadership.”
Alton proceeded to present a trend line that is quite simple. Since the “Baby Boomer” generation is entering retirement and the population of “Generation Xers” is significantly lower than the population of Baby Boomers, companies are looking towards “Millennials” to close the gap in the work place. For many young graduates, this means being thrust into leadership positions early on, sometimes quicker than expected. For Alton, a product of Generation X who went on to become CEO of the SC Campaign at just 28-years-old, the idea of being thrust into leadership early is not a theory to him, but an experience.
Based on the trend he presented, leadership for many in the room would seem inevitable. “You can’t come to work and wait to be told what to do,” said Alton. “Come to work being a visionary.” In an effort to reinforce the meaning behind his statement, Alton encouraged each student to take out a piece of paper and draw the first thing they could think of. After a minute, he presented a doodle of a standard house, a sunny sky, and a bushy tree. After taking a quick survey of who in the room had drawn a similar picture, only a few hands were raised. Alton stressed that had the crowd been full of students from previous generations, there would have been way more hands in the air. “We’re lacking creativity in public health,” said Alton. “I need some people in my office that aren’t going to draw the house!”
Libby Massey, public health and leadership studies senior at USC, said Alton’s presentation gave her hope that there is a place for her within the workforce post-graduation. “One of the biggest things we worry about is the connection between the leadership in companies and our generation because we are a lot different,” said Massey. “You can structure your strengths and what our generation is good at to be a strength for a company in a way that is not intimidating for older generations.”
For Kara Montgomery, Clinical Associate Professor and Undergraduate Program Director for USC’s public health program, Alton’s talk was a way to encourage seniors to be less apprehensive about the road ahead of them. “We’re reading a lot of papers where they are reflecting on their skills and they’re still unsure about where they can go. By hearing from him, they can see that a young person can really make a difference in public health,” said Montgomery. “Even if the content area that they’re passionate about doesn’t have a job opening, [with] some of the skills that they’ve gained from internships and from this class, they’ll still be able to get a job, apply to graduate school, or be successful.”
Alton made it clear to the students that while leadership is a very real possibility, failure, although scary, is just as real and necessary. For Alton, allowing room for failure is one of the best ways to grow, whether you are a leader or just entering a field. “Create a space for people to fail. Let them learn lessons and then move on,” said Alton.
In a final nod to his journey from public health student to CEO, Alton made sure to identify his success was not created with his hands alone, but by a network of people who were willing to support him. “All of my progression,” said Alton, is because of everyone I called on in my undergraduate and graduate years.” As the semester rapidly approaches its halfway mark, the networks public health seniors have created have the possibility to take them down roads they could've never imagined. As they begin to transition from the hallways of USC's Arnold School and into a world of possibilites, no matter what path they choose, the future belongs to them.