I have a confession to make: I used to be embarrassed by my age.
And I don’t mean I was a little bit embarrassed. I’m talking a gut-wrenching level of embarrassment to the point where I would either lie about my age or deny the person a response.
After years of doing everything possible to avoid those four little words, I have managed to overcome my embarrassment — partly because I’m a little older, but mainly because I’ve come to terms with what I have accomplished and the hard work it took to get there.
History is laden with young leaders — trailblazers who envisioned goals that those above them seemed unable to see — and I believe there are more now than ever before. The pace of business is accelerating and I believe it is due to the unbridled energy and enthusiasm of young people who aren’t afraid to say, “I can do this, and I can do it really well.”
Take Mark Zuckerberg, Marissa Mayer, and Amy Schumer for instance. They’re all incredibly intelligent and successful young people who took advantage of a unique opportunity that seemingly no one else could see. They were also dedicated, methodical, strategic, and they understood what it would take to succeed.
I wouldn’t want anyone to suffer the embarrassment and insecurities I’ve felt by being young, hungry, and capable. As a young leader in the making, it’s important you know how to free yourself of this curiously common case of professional ageism. Below are my tips for doing just that.
1) Understand the business.
The most important thing that’s happening in your workplace is the overall health and prosperity of the business. It is vital that you not only work hard in your position, but also that you understand how your role fits in with the rest of the business to drive real results.
And don’t ever be afraid to demonstrate this intelligence. For instance, if you happen to step into the elevator with the CFO, ask a question that represents your awareness of what matters to them, instead of a casual “So, how’s business?”
2) Be an active listener.
Even if you are a young leader in the making, you are still very much a student of leadership. Listen, ask questions, and soak up as much as possible. Your more experienced colleagues may or may not be leaders, but they’ve no doubt seen many more things than you have. Their insight could be invaluable — even if you don’t agree with their point of view.
3) Demonstrate your abilities .
You don’t need a promotion to grow at work. If you think you can lead, then all you need to do is prove it.
This means asking for opportunity to shine, and demonstrating that you can step up when duty calls. It might only be a small task, but others will take notice.
4) Challenge the status quo.
Even the most traditional company should be open to new ideas (and if yours is not, maybe a new job is what you need). Even if the answer is ‘no,’ the fact that you aren’t afraid to reimagine ways of doing things will get you noticed.
It’ll be easiest to do this when you first start a job. When I worked at Microsoft, my mentor told me that you only have about six months to question everything before the position starts to change your lens — so don’t be apprehensive about challenging old ideas.
5) Know what you know (and what you don’t).
I worked really hard during school and was really pleased with where my scores landed, but I would never claim to be an expert in all of my subjects. In that same light, there are frequently aspects of your job that sit outside of your specialty. You should be confident in your expertise, but never be embarrassed by what you don’t know — it’s the only way you’ll ever give yourself an opportunity to learn more.
6) Share your unique thoughts.
No one looks at things quite like you do, and your insight could be invaluable at the appropriate time. Your opinions might not shake the earth every time, but there’s no harming in sharing what you think with others. In fact, it takes guts to share your opinions — especially if they are potentially controversial. So while you may not be a thought leader just yet, you can test the waters by writing blog posts, engaging in Twitter conversations, planning coffee catch-ups, and taking advantages of chance elevator encounters.
7) Take and give feedback without getting defensive.
Many young leaders get defensive far too quickly, and they guard their ideas like they’re children. Push that zeal aside for a moment and take on feedback in any form — good or bad. You should also become able to share feedback with others as they’ll respect your honesty, even if they don’t show it the first time. The more feedback you receive and the more you give, the better you’ll become at yielding positive outcomes. Everyone will improve around you … which is what leadership is all about.
8) Take well-assessed risks.
Being young and bold can have its clear advantages. With less to lose, taking strategic risks will be key to your success. Zuckerberg, Mayer, and Schumer took risks, but they were meticulous in their execution and confident in their abilities. They were lucky in some ways, but they were also prepared and sure of themselves.
9) Remember, not everyone is like you.
If you’re reading this post, you’re likely someone who is interested in growing themselves. Keep in mind that not everyone is interested in moving into a leadership role. Some people prefer being individual contributors who excel in niche opportunities while others maybe just aren’t cut out for leadership in the first place. And that’s okay.
In the past, my inexperience has occasionally lead me to judge my peers harshly because they didn’t have what I call ‘B-HAGs’ (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals). I’ve learnt that to be a great leader, you need to be aware of everything that’s going on around you — and that includes understanding and accepting how your colleagues differ from you.
I believe my story represents the aspirations of many young professionals who share an eagerness — a compulsion — to further themselves both personally and professionally. I just want to make one thing clear to other young leaders who are working hard to improve themselves: Always be proud of who you are and what you have accomplished because that’s the driving impetus of your future success.