What`s Age Got to Do With It

“You`ve got this. You can do this. You know what you`re doing,” I told myself as I prepared for a full day of meetings at a Fortune 100 telecommunications company that had just hired me to improve its dismal retention rate. Me!? I was a 25-year-old speaker and career coach who had never done a consulting engagement before. A little pep talk before heading out the door seemed reasonable, considering the circumstances; still, I wasn’t sure I believed a word I said. I was excited to have the opportunity (and the money) but worried that my education, instincts and limited experience might not be enough to create the change they’d hired me to ignite.

My first step was to understand the company’s culture, so today I would be interviewing 10 executives – mostly older men. As I got out of my car, my heart began racing. “They’re going to take one look at me and think this is a waste of time,” I thought.

Before entering the building I took a break from my self-flagellation, reminded myself I had a job to do and took a few moments to gain some clarity. I asked myself, “What am I here to do? What difference am I setting out to make?” Soon, I shifted my focus from my youth to my vision. And I did good work that day.

As I was preparing to leave, the gentleman with whom I’d just met, asked me an off-putting question:  “Does your age ever get in your way when you`re doing this work?” I got quiet, feeling as though he’d just pointed out my biggest flaw. “When I first saw you, I thought this was a waste of my time, but you really grabbed my attention with the quality of your questions and the passion that`s clearly driving you. Your age isn`t a problem for me. I`m just wondering if you`ve had problems with others in the past.”

I considered his question for a moment, my self-esteem bolstered by his explanation, then said, “Yeah, but those problems seem to only exist inside my head.”

Through this experience, and many others that followed, I learned just how important it is to clarify my vision before beginning any engagement: consulting, speaking or otherwise. I also realized that focusing on what I have or don`t have wastes energy. The work is not about me; it`s about the results I generate. I did, in fact, help increase this company’s retention rates among young professionals (age 35 and younger) – from 50 percent to 90 percent in just a couple years.

I’m not the only “youngster” who’s ever had to successfully lead a team of people older than her parents. Almost five years later, listening to a panel at a recent government conference focused on innovation, I was reminded of this time in my life. One exceptional young man, Mike, really impressed me. “Most of the people I`m leading have been with the organization longer than I`ve been alive,” he explained. “For that reason alone, they have a great deal more knowledge than I have about how the organization functions.” Mike really understands the importance of leveraging his resources! So many young professionals think they need to show how much they know to prove their teams should follow them. Mike knows the value of honestly and humbly highlighting other’s strengths. He knows that he is only as successful as his team and that he must strike an important balance between freedom and direction.

So, as a young leader, what matters most?

Collaboration. Right or wrong, people tend to automatically assume that age brings increased ability and wisdom. If Mike had not worked harder to gain his team’s trust, and just assumed they did/should trust him, he wouldn’t have been as effective. Instead, he carefully crafted his messages, included his team in the decision-making process and then held each person responsible for his/her contribution to the vision. 

Authenticity. Instead of pretending that he knew everything, Mike knew who to go to and how to ask for help. He mentioned one woman who was honest with him from the beginning and quite opinionated; he valued her input and often asked her for advice. However, he also knew how to set boundaries. When she questioned his leadership ability in front of the group, he addressed the issue with her later in private: “When I`m leading, let me lead. When I mess up, bring me to the side and give me a kick.”

Inspiration/Empowerment. Being a leader requires inspiring and empowering team members, regardless of generation. Which, of course, means knowing the people who report to you – not just their work. Here’s a great tool for gaining such knowledge about your team: http://tinyurl.com/yhncc3v.

As a young leader, you can make a difference in your organization! Age is only a hindrance when we think it is.

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