Look, Boss, I’m All Grown Up!

One thing I enjoy about leading teams is finding young people with potential and helping them grow into great leaders. Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed a lot of capable young leaders in thriving organizations who eventually become discouraged, disengaged, and leave for other opportunities.

Why? Despite the fact that they’ve grown well beyond their entry-level positions and are knowledgeable and qualified to move into roles with more responsibilities and opportunities, they are stereotyped as the perennial kid. Their leaders will not let them grow up.

Sometimes leaders do it without even realizing it. They refer to their younger teammate as “kiddo” or “sidekick” in front of clients. They shelter them from opportunities to interact with the higher ups. They say things in meetings like, “When we were working on Project XYZ, you were still in diapers!”

Here are some actions to take to support the growth of your young leaders:

  • Treat them like you would treat someone your age in the same position.
  • When introducing them to clients or business colleagues, use their title or specific area of responsibility rather than “star note taker” or “my helper” or “our new kid.” (Yes, some leaders really do this!)
  • Compensation should commensurate with their responsibilities, experience, and performance, not their age or tenure.
  • Ask for their opinions on new projects. Give them challenges to tackle.
  • When filling an open position, look within first. The modest amount of training a younger leader may need to step in a new role might be a much smaller investment than the costs of hiring a brand-new employee who may or may not stick around.

On the other hand, young leaders, if you want to be viewed as a peer to your senior colleagues, act like it. Here are some tips:

  • Take responsibility for your work. Don’t rely on colleagues to clean up your drafts or catch your mistakes. Make everything you do “presentation ready.”
  • Read books, articles, and blog posts in your area of expertise. Keep learning so you can keep adding value.
  • Act and dress the part. If you act and dress like you’re still in college, you’ll likely be treated as such.
  • EQ matters as much as (and often more than) than IQ. Regardless of how intelligent you are, emotional immaturity will hold you back. Your ability to rise above the drama and handle all situations with a level head is essential to your ability take on additional responsibilities.
  • Communicate professionally. Don’t send emails using “text speak.” Work on being well-spoken and clearly explaining your ideas without fillers such as “like” or “um.”
  • Focus on gaining experience. That experience will open the door to more opportunities. Money is a result and follows your hard work, not the other way around.

Growth opportunities are a reward, not a right. As leaders, we must support the growth of those hungry, hard-working young leaders by helping create opportunities for those who’ve earned them.

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  • Linda, your post deeply resonates with me and the experience I had in my first full-time job.

    Working at a nonprofit at the age of 21 I quickly became confused and frustrated at my boss. She constantly referred to me as being “cute” as well as constantly reminding me that she’d been working at our organization for as long as I had been alive. These two regular comments along with her other degrading ways of interacting with me greatly discouraged me. As a result, I began to question myself, struggle to have confidence in abilities, and I took the opportunity to work in another department when it came.

    Thanks for sharing your insight on this topic. I am sure that I am not the only person to have fallen victim as a young leader. As a result of this experience I hope that I can act appropriately when I am seen as a senior leader.

    • Linda Sasser says:

      Christopher, I am glad to hear you were able to move to another department rather than leave the organization completely. Did you have the opportunity to talk to your leader and discuss your honest thoughts before transferring? Many leaders have no idea they’re doing something that bothers their teammates until someone takes the opportunity to have an honest conversation. (I’ve been there!) As for your experience, sometimes our best lessons learned as leaders are from how we don’t want to be led! Kudos to you for learning from your own experience and how you plan to lead your team differently in the future. Thanks for reading and for your comments!