Last night, Sherri threw me a surprise 30th birthday party. It was phenomenal as she brought all my best friends that I grew up with together. We live all over now but people traveled from out of town and it really was a special evening.
I was thinking how I wanted to write a 30th birthday post over the past few days. Instead of thanking everyone who inspired the past 30 years, I netted out with providing some thoughts on how to be the young person at the table in a room of older and supposedly wiser people.
I’ve pretty much navigated the age-gap ever since I was 16. So, theoretically, I have 14 years of experience being the young buck at the table. I’ve been called Doogie Howser, Wunderkid, The Punk, The Turk, The Suit, The Brain, and various other names over the years. One of the top questions I get from people I meet with is usually around how I deal with always being the youngest around the table. It’s a very good question and always forces me to think. I’ve written some thoughts up below.
Note: I know it’s not always the case that older people are skeptical of younger. But, I have seen it quite a bit. I also realize that being older does not necessarily mean that one is smarter. I do not believe that age is a predictor of future success, but a good case can be made that an older person is more mature and has developed workplace skills such as leadership, operations management, and other skills that can give them a leg up.
Here are five thoughts:
1. Listen, then speak. But don’t speak too much. By being the young one, there generally already is a bias against you from older people. The more you speak, the more you have the chance to say something dumb, so lessen the chances. People are looking for a reason to bring you down. When you do speak, speak wisely, succinct, and controlled. Do not talk for the sake of talking.
2. Act as if. We all saw the movie Boiler Room and remember Ben Affleck giving his speech about “Acting as If.” That has stuck with me ever since I saw the movie. Always be prepared with confidence, though do not go near the border of confidence with cockiness.
3. Dress the part. More often than not, I find that dressing “+1” is better than dressing status quo. If people are walking around the office in baggie jeans and t-shirts, then buy a nice pair of jeans and a button down. You do not need to dress to impress, but dress better than the rest. People will take you more seriously. We have all heard the quote, perception is reality.
4. Pick your situations. I can count on all my fingers how many work related events I’ve been to where drinking/partying was the main function. And when I was at them, I partook with a single glass of wine, a shirley temple or seltzer. Pick your situations wisely because people want to trust leaders, especially young ones with respect and confidence and the last thing you want to be is the one passed out on the couch after having too much scotch. Again, since you are young and in a senior position, people are looking to bring you down. Don’t give them a reason to do so. I’m not advocating not to have fun, but if you’re an aspiring young leader, pick your situations carefully.
5. Open door. One tactic that’s helped me through the years is to be fully open for virtually anyone to meet with. While it may take weeks to schedule, getting on the schedule to meet is certainly doable. I make it that way on purpose. I want to be available because most other senior leaders are not. I derive knowledge, intelligence, and inspiration by almost every meeting, so I keep them on my calendar.
Thank you to everyone who helped make these last 30 years special. I am grateful.