The ABC’s of Thriving as a Young Leader

“I’m not sure he is ready for that step. He’s just a kid!” I remember overhearing this conversation at my neighborhood Food Lion, a failing grocery store in the Southeast. At that time, I was actively pursuing one of the three key-carrying management positions at the store level, the grocery manager. In this role, I would be responsible placing efficient orders and merchandising to maintain sales. To do this, I had to consider sales history, projections, and goals as well as manage existing inventory and planning. More importantly, I had to be connected to the vision of the company in order to understand their expectations and lead others into that. I was barely 17 at the time working full time hours while in high school. I got the job, and to make a long story short, people didn’t like that.

In today’s world of resources and connectivity, it is becoming more common to see young people in leadership positions. I have heard so many jokes about puberty, shaving, and Doogie Howser references I stopped counting years ago. Yes, young leaders are increasing in acceptance, but this doesn’t mean everyone will be welcoming to you. Generally, people expect younger people in higher positions to either not know what they are doing or just tasting different flavors of life, not expected to be around long. Regardless of the expectation, and as with any leader, trust is a major issue. This is especially true for young leaders.

Fast forward 10 years and many failures along the way and my passion for leadership has proven to be more than just a fluke. I have held numerous leadership positions since the Food Lion story, all gradually increasing in relevance and importance. Though this time is short and much more experience is yet to come, I have noticed some underlying trends about what people expect from a good leader. It should be a relief to know up front that you can be a good leader regardless of your age. I believe by sharing this foundational knowledge that you will have a better grasp on creating the strong leadership presence you need as a young leader on your first day.

Acknowledge the tenure or age gap proactively.

I have found that if I just address the elephant in the room it shows people I am already considering their thoughts and taking action by speaking to them. Get a feel for your team first, but generally this begins as a lighter topic for them so feel free to have some fun with it. With my most recent team, I held an intro huddle to share my background so they knew what experience I was bringing to them. Once that was out there, I quickly said, “I am fully aware I could have been cast in a bad sequel for 13 Going on 30 but I would appreciate it if we could avoid any comments that could be offensive to anyone on the team.” By doing this, you come out of the gate commanding a leadership presence by discreetly sharing your experiences and then setting a welcoming, but firm tone.

Boost their confidence.

One of the best ways to establish trust with someone is to compliment something they do well. Patrick King, the author of The Science of Likability and 60 Seconds to Likability, stresses the importance of a first impression. He says, “Once that positive or negative impression is set into place, every one of your actions is viewed through it.” He also says that a great way to initiate a positive interaction with someone is to “be likeable, bondable, and relatable” because “it makes people want to deal with you.” As a young leader, you can use the likely gap in tenure to your advantage here. In my first 1:1 conversation with each person on my team that was older than me or had been at the company longer, I praised their longevity and loyalty. I commented about how much it says that they have either been with the company or the role that long. I then asked them to share one reason they have stayed and one thing from their experience I could learn from them. This helps me get a feel for their intention on the team, their goals, knowledge and experience, all while making them feel good about themselves. This is a great way to paint a positive image of yourself with them.

In your case, you do not only want to boost their confidence as individuals, but you must also boost their confidence in your ability to lead them. Here, it is beneficial to know your resources. It helps to know what skills are most useful in your industry and/or within your organization. Many employers have resource pages that lay all this out. Be aware of these resources and when you have 1:1’s with your team, make sure to let them know you are interested in where they see themselves. You will be so confident in knowing what resources are available to them you should find yourself offering them along the way. Being proactive will demand respect.

Catch and share the vision.

Adding to the above, the key to building their trust in you as their leader is to have a good grasp on the vision of the organization. In business, the vision is a clear image of what you want your business or your team to be within a measurable amount of time. On my team, I set three core values in our first meeting that captured our vision. An example of one of those values is that “We serve our customers, and we serve each other.” This value supports our vision of improving the sense of security of our customers. People look to their leader for vision and direction. The most memorable leaders in our lives are those who help us connect with our purpose within an organization. This cannot happen without awareness and agreeableness with the vision.

In the book Lead Like Jesus written by Ken Blanchard, co-author of The One Minute Manager, and Phil Hodges, they describe why Jesus’ leadership was so effective. In a word, he was empowering. They state that when we cast the vision, the rest of the organization is expected to be responsive to it. Once they become aware of it, they become responsible for carrying out the vision of the team or organization. This puts responsibility on the most important part of the team, those interacting with clients and customers and directly representing the company brand. Now, in order for successful leadership to take place, you must now be responsive to needs that are brought up to you by those carrying out the vision. Blanchard and Hodges state, “When your frontline people are empowered to take care of the customers, the role of the designated leader moves to the bottom of the hierarchy, where leadership becomes an act of service.”

Coordinate, Collaborate, and Communicate

These remaining C’s cover the expected slogan of “lead by example.” You are in the position you are in because you have led by example and are ready to share your expertise. So how do you do that? You coordinate, collaborate, and communicate.

• Coordinate-Coordination is the art of bringing different elements into a relationship that will bring efficiency to the organization. A good coordinator is skilled in organizational agility. This means they know how the organization works and how the parts within it connect together.

• Collaborate-To collaborate means to work jointly on an activity with the intention of producing something. Adding to the definition of coordinate, someone skilled in collaboration is great at helping people see how they fit into the relationship and what they can do in a process to improve it. Collaboration is done at the team level through huddles or forums, as well as the individual level through 1:1’s to improve stats or talk about career advancement goals.

• Communicate-You have heard the saying “Communicate, communicate, communicate.” It is true, there is never too much communication. Communication is sharing the why behind the things as much as the how behind things. Being skilled here is a huge trust-builder as people are happy to follow someone who goes out of their way to make sure they understand something. Making this known to your team will take you far in itself and there is always a glaring need for talented communicators. A good communicator makes sure someone understands how to do something, but also makes sure they are happy doing it because they understand why it benefits them.

The most important (required, if you will) criteria for effective leaders is that they are likeable, connected with the vision, and care about their people. This is shown by availability, resourcefulness, and visibility, meaning keep your team in the loop about what is happening. It is not effective leadership to approach your team in insecurity and spout off authoritarian demands. There are much more effective ways to command a leadership presence while also establishing respect along the way. I hope that you now feel more prepared as a young leader to make people forget that you don’t have to shave yet.

Additional resource: 12 Habits Of Successful Young Leaders

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