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Editorial
5 Keys To Leading When You're The Youngest In The Room
© elnariz / Adobe Stock
Rebecca Hruska
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A couple of years ago, I moved from a position where I was the same age as everyone in the company to a role where I was sitting on a leadership team with “peers” who were on average 15 years older than I was.  I was sometimes referred to — affectionately — as “kid.”

I remember (and still sometimes fight) feeling like a total imposter. Yes, I knew my stuff, and I had been promoted for a reason, but I was struggling to figure out how I could contribute effectively on a team whose members easily had more than double my years of experience. Plus, how was I going to have the confidence to manage direct reports who were older than I was?

Here’s what I learned along the way. If it worked for me, it can work for anyone. And don’t forget, development is a journey, not a destination.

1. Check your ego and your need to know everything at the door.

One of the biggest revelations I’ve had over the past year is that it’s ok to admit you don’t know everything. In fact, it’s awesome. Being a leader or manager is about asking good questions, and putting together the right team to get great results.

Being able to acknowledge my areas of strength and weakness has empowered me in three ways:

  • Acknowledging what I don’t know allows me to really own what I do know, and makes me even more confident to share it. When I’m not trying to know everything, it’s easier to focus on where I’m most talented. I don’t have to worry about delivering everything else. I can get experts for that.
  • Acknowledging what I don’t know allows me to resource myself. Recognizing that it’s ok to bring experts in is incredibly empowering. Whether that resource is a book, a consultant/contractor or a new team member, not allowing your ego to lead means you can get the best work done by the best people for the job.
  • Parking my ego at the door helps me build a strong team. People generally come to work wanting to do their best. Acknowledging that a team member has a specific skill and giving them a “stretching” project (versus keeping it for yourself and struggling through it) engages them and helps to build trust — a critical factor for success on any team.

2. Own it.

It was easy for me as a young woman to question whether or not I belonged in my role, and to wonder if others on my team and organization believed I was actually adding value. The only way to get over that was to start proving it out. I determined to own my role by setting myself up to win. Practically speaking, early on I made the decision to stop focusing on the behemoth goals in front of me, and just capture little wins every day. One win at a time I was gaining confidence, owning my position.

And here’s a simple but effective tactic I employed early on — I made sure to dress the part. If I felt put together and polished, it was easier for me to project confidence and own my role.

3. Ask questions first.

When stepping into an existing work culture, ask questions. It’s more important to acknowledge the collective expertise and experience of the team than to push your own knowledge base. Solutions are always better when they’re backed by facts, so asking questions, gathering data, and allowing others to voice opinions leads to better outcomes. And engaging the team provides fertile ground to form relationships and create opportunities for better communication and collaboration.

4. Prepare for meetings.

Personally, I’m an introvert. I love to mull problems over before I provide an answer. Couple that with being young and new to a team, you can imagine I was really quiet early on in my leadership role. A coach gave me a great tip: think through the meeting in advance, plan an outcome, and come in with multiple talking points. That way I still have time to ponder, but it’s now prior to the meeting, rather than afterwards. Making sure I always have something to offer has helped me build that muscle. Now, I need a lot less prep time in order to contribute effectively.

5. Spend time developing.

You can’t underestimate the power of development. I’ve got a long-ish car commute, so I’ve been able to use audiobooks, podcasts and mentorship phone calls to my advantage on the ride. I always recommend finding a way to make sure that development time is a priority, it’s like working out for your brain. Books, podcasts, blogs and one-on-ones with great leaders really make a difference. You’ll find your vocabulary, cadence and comfort with new concepts grow as you learn and take in new knowledge daily.

And have fun. Learning to lead is a process — it’s about progress, not perfection. Perspective matters. I’ve seen my “mistakes” as creative stepping stones toward becoming more proficient in what I do and how I do it. Embrace your humanity, your wins and your challenges, and have a blast doing it.

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Rebecca Hruska is the business development officer for THE COCOA EXCHANGE™, a direct-to-consumer business platform by Mars. Starting out in this space while at Depauw University, she is a big fan of social selling because it offers individuals opportunity for growth, development, and empowerment - on their own terms. A total “learning junkie, she lives with her husband in New Jersey and is passionate about her violin and women’s issues.

 

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