Career paths are marked by milestones, not birthdays. Promotions, aside from complete career changes, are probably the most prominent pivot points along the way. And while tenure is a valuable hallmark of leadership, years on a resume do not tell the entire story.
I am proud to be regularly called a “young” leader, though it took some getting used to at first. As the vice president of a multimillion-dollar B-to-B and technology division at a national public relations agency, I am consistently asked to provide strategic counsel and a strong point of view to top executives with at least a decade or more years on paper compared to my tenure. There is a consistent voice in the back of my head that tells me I sometimes only have a few minutes to earn their trust and attention when a meeting or big pitch is about to begin. Rather than let this voice intimidate me, it has become a source of confidence to speak up early, often and with conviction.
Considered a millennial by one year, I lean into my age strategically—having straddled a non-digital upbringing with a nearly always-connected career. This perspective has also made it abundantly clear that the expectations of a young leader are exceptionally high, and the runway to demonstrate value is comparatively short. For aspiring and new leaders in any field, I believe there are four critical areas to focus your time, talents and energy to successfully establish yourself without compromising your voice:
1, Get comfortable with the uncomfortable
If tough conversations and controversial decisions do not come naturally, millennial leaders must force themselves out of their comfort zone. Confrontation doesn’t have to be negative. However, it’s imperative to stay on course. Young leaders can struggle with the notion of fairness and wanting everyone to like them. Fair can and should be a daily goal, but not the expectation. Challenging a team member, client or even other leaders in your organization puts people on notice that you will not be walked on or intimidated because of age. Tough conversations, approached with a level head and respect, demonstrate that you are up to the task and can address and bounce back from adversity. Young leaders must stand their ground with even more conviction than their older counterparts. Fair? Not really—but it’s the first reality to embrace and put into practice.
2. Self-Reflect Often
Millennial leaders have a distinct advantage in that we often put ourselves under a microscope daily—and according to a survey by Virtuali and Work Place Trends, 50 percent of us approach leadership as the empowerment of others. Did I bring a unique perspective to yesterday’s planning session? What are new things I can be doing to improve team culture? How can I change a policy I don’t support? Is there an issue brewing that everyone else has overlooked? Leadership, done well, requires constant self-reflection. Young leaders have the energy and passion to inspire real change and are ready to fight even harder for their ideas. Among young leaders, mistakes become much more than a teaching moment. Mistakes are corrected and then followed up with new checks and balances to prevent a repeat occurrence. Successful young leaders very quickly learn how to set any ego aside and always look inward first to determine what could have been handled better from their seat first.
3. Remember the “Trenches” Mentality
Another significant benefit of being a young leader is that not much time has passed since daily expectations were directly related to the hard work at hand. In PR, for example, that means I have a very real perspective of the media landscape and what it takes to land that big hit our clients are demanding. I can counsel up to course-correct strategy, and mentor-down to help the team achieve program goals. Young leaders have put in the late nights and tackled mind-numbing administrative tasks—and not so long ago. Elevating into leadership, while still making the time to roll up sleeves and do the work when it benefits the team, is an invaluable skill that keeps young leaders relevant. And when there are no tasks above the title of a new leader, trust and team comradery soars as well.
4. Lead 24/7
New executives, particularly millennials, have likely spent their entire career connected. I remember the pride of being given my first Blackberry just one year into agency life. While there are certain drawbacks to not always knowing how to unplug, the flip side is that young leaders can be even more conscious of their power to lead from all facets of their life. This might mean sharing creative concepts or interesting industry news with clients on off-hours, demonstrating that their business is always top of mind. Leading 24/7 can also mean being an executive who is unapologetic about leaving work on time for gym class or family dinner—proving that self-care truly does have an important place in the organization. This is especially critical for talent retention, as the majority of female millennials surveyed by Bustle are nervous to set work-life boundaries. Opportunities for leadership happen at every moment of every day and young leaders must be particularly comfortable with embracing—and fighting for—this blended approach to work and life.
Never has there been a more exciting time to be a young senior-level executive. Millennials make up more than 35 percent of the workforce and people are eager to be a part of how this generation shapes the future. But the young leaders’ climb is undoubtedly a bit steeper and having a strong voice must be balanced with enough humility to ask for guidance when needed. Self-reflection, a willingness to fail and an unwavering commitment to operating well outside of comfort zones all combine to lay a powerful foundation for today’s youngest leaders.