Leadership: How to succeed as a young leader

How to succeed as a young leader

As increasing numbers of Baby Boomers retire, their former leadership roles are being filled by a new generation of leaders. Quite literally in some cases, leadership has skipped over Generation X and has anointed individuals from Generation Y to strategic roles. Why? Well in part it’s in response to the pace of change businesses are experiencing. More and more organisations are turning to the younger generations to capture and reflect the technological innovations, global opportunities and generational shifts that will determine their future growth. So, is this a recipe for success? Will we see highly talented employees rising to the challenge and successfully guiding their organisation through changing times?  Or will it result in often untried individuals pitched into the leadership cauldron only to emerge, beaten, battered and burnt from that chastening experience.

In all likelihood, it is probably somewhere in between. That said, for younger leaders in particular there are a number of areas that they may wish to pay particular attention to in order to enhance their overall chances of success.

Avoiding the leadership pitfalls.

A newly appointed ‘young leader’ in their 30’s will undoubtedly find themselves subject to challenges and questions that would rarely be asked of an older employee who is perceived to have greater managerial or leadership experience. These can include issues such as:

Generational Stereotypes. Leaving aside factors such as competence or expertise, younger leaders are often characterised by stereotypes to do with their age. They are likely to have to address lazy preconceived images that paint them as unorganised, uninformed, apathetic, selfie-obsessed narcissists with an overly developed sense of self-worth and entitlement. In most cases wrong, but a stereotype is still a stereotype.

Limited Business Experience. A ‘leader’ in their 30’s is likely to have had between 8 – 15 years post university experience. For some, questions as to whether this is enough will arise. Inevitably there will be certain aspects of managing a business that younger leaders are unlikely to have experienced. Addressing these ‘knowledge gaps’ is key. Put simply, will they be able to do the job asked of them? Are they seen as a ‘risky appointment’? Or will their career to date (and it is likely to have been a stellar one, to get them into the role they now occupy) give others a false impression of their true ability to lead – are they destined to fail?

Establishing Confidence. Unfortunately, there are likely to be rather too many experienced individuals (including some passed-over for promotion) waiting for these young leaders to ‘get it wrong’ in order that they can be proved ‘right’. Ensuring that all within the workforce are both engaged and supportive of the leader is one of the biggest challenges. However, it can be particularly challenging if the individual steering the ship is younger and has less experience than their employees.

Managing Perspective. Essentially ‘how leaders show up’ is of particular importance for younger leaders. Many make the mistake of surrounding themselves with like-minded individuals. People with similar backgrounds, perspectives, and indeed, similar leadership styles, images and approaches. Clearly not a great start if you are trying to address a diverse workforce. Good leaders welcome individuals who ‘challenge’ their thinking. After all, this is what ultimately drives business performance and innovation, not a cohort of ‘yes-men’ who are all looking to ingratiate themselves. Encourage diversity and build an organisational culture that appeals to the many, not just the few.

Failure to appreciate the past. In hiring a young leader, organisations are often keen to introduce more dynamism and innovation into their activities. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. However, younger leaders can become fixated on their own personal agenda that the foundation from which they are working is often neither acknowledged nor appreciated. Get this wrong and the stability of what is currently in place, alongside the confidence and engagement of employees and customers can be seriously undermined. A good leader should always look to the future, but should not lose sight of the past.

So what to do?

Leaders in any context can often face similar challenges. However, for younger leaders, being aware of a number of practical business approaches can often pay dividends. These include:

  • First 90 days. The first 90 days in a new role are key. First impressions really do matter. Get it right and people will be supportive and motivated by them and will allow themselves to be led. Get it wrong and it becomes a much harder challenge to convince new colleagues, customers and other stakeholders that they are the right person for the job.
  • Articulate the Vision. Focus on the longer term strategic goals by clearly articulating a vision that people can buy into. Set out a roadmap to achieve those goals and strive for continual development. However, this needs to be balanced with listening and canvassing views of those within the business, and being open to changing your opinion or direction.
  • Be Authentic. Authenticity is somewhat over used word when it comes to describing leaders. However, younger leaders need to ensure that what others see of them is genuinely authentic, transparent, supportive and collaborative. Taken together these will drive engagement and allow them to lead with confidence, knowing that others are genuinely bought in to both the individual and the strategic vision. Self-awareness, strong emotional intelligence alongside a degree of humility are likely to be noted and appreciated.
  • Learn. Let yourself be coached and look to develop your skills. Listen to the facts and look to become thoroughly informed about the situation. Don’t rush decisions in the early days. The accountability to lead rests on your shoulders and more often than not a considered decision is better than a quick decision. Younger leaders cannot be expected to know everything, and acknowledging that fact, as well as being open and receptive to differing opinions and learning from others who have already trodden the path will help build credibility.
  • Plan for the future but acknowledge the past. People will want to change at different rates so work hard to ensure they are not left behind. Communication is crucial. Whatever changes leaders may be looking to introduce, taking time to explain what is being done and why will pay dividends. Temptation may be to throw away the old and hustle in the new, but done too quickly it can alienate key employees as well as risk getting rid of things that should have been retained. It is all too easy to develop a superficial gloss that hides a multitude of problems. Kimberley Wade-Benzoni has talked about ensuring that leaders appreciate the legacy that they have inherited and should focus on ensuring that the legacy that they pass on is just as strong.

Whilst these pointers  provide a platform to support younger leaders transition successfully into bigger leadership roles, it is essential that the organisation contributes to their on-going development. Focus on ways to address knowledge gaps and ‘blind-spots’. Doing so will improve the chances of a successful appointment.