Like many other Millennials hoping to break into the national security world, I hightailed it to Washington, DC the minute I had my master’s diploma in hand. Once there, I networked myself into a frenzy as I searched for a job that would satisfy my intellectual hunger.
A few weeks later, a defense contractor hired me to run the operations for a training program at the Pentagon. I was responsible for preparing high-ranking Department of Defense officials for a seamless deployment to Afghanistan, where they would then serve as advisors to the Afghan government. I sat at the forefront of the U.S. and NATO’s foreign policy efforts in Central Asia, and I was ready for the challenge. In fact, everything I had accomplished in my life up to that point was preparation for this exact opportunity. I was ready.
I was also 23 years old.
My excitement carried me through my first few hours on the job. I was exceedingly polite, cheerful, and helpful toward the much older team I was sent in to manage. My job was progressing wonderfully until one official, at least 30 years my senior, interrupted me mid-sentence and asked with frank incredulity, “How old are you?”
Although I expected to hear that question at some point, it nevertheless stopped me dead in my tracks. I didn’t anticipate how much it would hurt, or how personally I would take it.
Over the next few weeks, the age references kept coming. I heard everything from “You look like my granddaughter” to “Are you even old enough to remember 9/11?” and “I’ve run out of peanut butter—could you run and get some more?”
No respect, and I couldn’t exactly fake wrinkles.
It was disheartening to see that my age was undermining my reputation and identity in the workplace, but I was determined not to let it dictate my performance. Throughout this journey of managing a group of people who were considerably older than I was, I discovered some valuable insights.
1. Be an Effective Communicator
Being a great communicator means knowing when to listen and when to share. In the early conversations I had with my team members, my mind would speed ahead to the points I felt I needed to make to reiterate that I was capable. After a while, I realized that everyone on all sides felt their ideas and opinions were being dismissed. It took a conscious effort to quiet the voice in my head that wanted to prove itself, but doing so was worth the effort because it enabled me to really hear what they were saying and to process it. If your colleagues feel valued, respected, and heard, they’ll notice your maturity, not your age.
2. Value Your Staff
Older doesn’t always mean wiser, but what it does usually mean is more experienced. A great manager knows how to leverage his or her team’s strengths, and that’s why it’s critical that you take the time to get to know your staff as individuals. Identify their unique talents and strengths, and look for ways to incorporate their opinions and honor their gifts. You will shine brighter as a leader when each individual member of your team is given the encouragement and tools to shine themselves.
3. Focus on Results, not the Process
Each person has a different set of needs that must be met in order to thrive. It’s more important than ever that you pay attention to the needs of your staff and avoid judging them. I once had an employee who required loud music in order to concentrate. I couldn’t understand such a process, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt—he got my large office so that he could work in loud solitude, and I moved into a smaller space with other members of my team. In the end, his work was stellar, so why not?
Surrender your ego, and put the team’s ability to succeed first.
4. Be Prepared to Answer the Age Question
The good news is that it’s illegal for someone to ask your age in the workplace. The bad news is that people ask it anyway. With that in mind, give some serious consideration to how you want to answer the inevitable question so you don’t get caught off guard. If your team sees you looking like a deer in headlights, you’ll solidify their suspicion that you just can’t handle the big job that awaits you.
If you don’t want to disclose your age but also don’t want to be unpleasant about it, just smile and playfully say something like “old enough to do the job.” If you are comfortable with sharing, go ahead! However you choose to handle it, be prepared for the question, answer it with confidence, and move on. The point is to avoid letting it become a subject for continued speculation. In order to do this, have an authentic response that’s well thought out before the age question presents itself so that you’re in a better position to control the conversation.
5. Become a Source of Stillness
Studies show that being stressed in the workplace leads to concentration problems, disorganization, and even anger. All too often, the mood in the office is dictated by the manager’s temperament. A friend of mine once had a young manager who was extremely capable, but she was easily overwhelmed and would often allow her frustration to spill over onto the rest of the team. While there are managers of all ages who share this trait, her youth and inexperience bore the brunt of the blame, and her staff started looking for de facto leadership elsewhere in the company.
Bottom line? If you are chaotic and unsure of yourself, your staff will pick up on it. If you can be a source of stillness, calm, and reason for your team, your age won’t matter.
6. Seek Respect, Not Approval
Machiavelli said he would rather be feared than loved. While I believe there was some wisdom in The Prince, I don’t advocate instilling fear in your employees. However, I believe there is a significant difference between respect and love, and when it comes to employees’ treatment of the boss, a healthy amount of the former is always best.
Getting that respect from them depends on you. Leave your social self—the one who seeks approval and needs to be liked—at home. The office is not the time or place for you to find your new best friend or workout partner.
For example, if an employee arrives 10 minutes late to a meeting, apologizing profusely, and you simply say, “no problem,” the other employees will notice. These shifts are often imperceptible in the moment, but over time, seeking the approval or acceptance of your staff gives the impression that you are a pushover, or worse, that you are scared of offending them. If you are driven by the need to be liked, your employees will inevitably start to wonder who is actually in charge.
Finally, remember that you may be young, but if you are in a leadership position, it is likely because you have devoted your life thus far to refining your special gift. There is an anecdote about a lady who saw Picasso briefly doodling on a napkin in a restaurant: She asked to buy it from him, and he said, “sure, that will be $100,000.” She was aghast at the price tag, and commented that it had only taken him five minutes to create the drawing. Picasso responded, “No, it took me my whole life.”
Never allow others’ perceptions of age dilute the value of the life-long hours you have devoted to your gift, your skill, and your leadership.