I look like a child.
I have chubby cheeks, am short, and will laugh at almost anything. So naturally, when I found myself in conversation with two Executive MBA students yesterday, I assumed they were referring to me when they made a crack about “these baby managers” – young, relatively inexperienced, and in charge. (To be fair, one of them pointed at me.)
My post-MBA job offer letter suggests that at some point in the next 12 months, I might be responsible for things. I’ll probably have to tell co-workers what to do and – for the good of our employer and my self-esteem – hope they do it. At some point in the next 12 months, young managers like you and I will have to demonstrate or otherwise explain why anyone should be listening to us at all. It will be difficult. People will need convincing. It isn’t our fault.
We’ve grown up in a world where age and experience are used as proxies for competence, and paucity of grey hair is a dead giveaway of naiveté.
We’ve grown up in a world where age and experience are used as proxies for competence, and paucity of grey hair betrays naiveté. The world defers to veterans. Doers who by pure dint of hard work carve out empire and drive P&L. Doers who hire and fire and set trends and sell product and take out advertising and are nice with Excel and who hire other doers until… one day… the idea tap runs dry.
At that point someone in HR or CCO will mumble something about “fresh ideas” or “paradigm shift” or “hashtag,” and two hectic recruiting seasons later, there you sit: the 27 year-old manager hired fresh out of <insert MBA program>, brimming with ideas. However, assuming most MBAs go back to school to break into a new industry, chances are someone on your team will have more experience than you do.
So, soon, you and I will be in new companies making decisions that are supposed to drive impact, while leading teams that might include a set of slightly jaded veterans questioning our arrival. One day, as I pass by the break room, I’m pretty sure I’ll hear Tim (or Ted or whatever) say “and he’s only 27! What does he know? Why the hell should I listen to him?!” Good question, Tim (or Jim?). Here’s why:
1. This is a New Marketplace
Times change. Right up there with death and taxes is the certainty that time will march stubbornly on, and insist on presenting our marketplace with a new wall of challenges that require new types of ladders to surmount. I’m a new breed of ladder-builder. There can be no denying that the marketplace exists today only because those who came before us built it. But there is also no denying that the marketplace has evolved and continues to evolve.
To win, you need a fresh pair of eyes, an innate understanding of technology, some brashness, and a feel for what’s hot in the streets. On some level, I just “get” this stuff. Any grandchild who has spent a few hours trying to explain downloading apps to their grandparents understands that some things are simply intuitive to us and not to those even 10 years older. We’re equipped to handle today’s challenges, not only by virtue of our education and exposure, but also because of the very characteristic that has us on the defensive – youth. Which is why…
2. I Have a Point to Prove
The weird thing is that on some level, I agree with you. Why SHOULD you listen to me? Leading MBA programs are full of insecure overachievers and I’m no different. I’m 27. I’ve only worked in one company. I haven’t managed a team before. This is pretty new to me. I spent A LOT of time preparing to interview for this role, nearly fell out during Round 1, and know a lot of good classmates who didn’t make it through the process; I’m still not entirely sure I’m ready for this and yet I need to prove to myself that I am. Imposter Syndrome for days.
Insecurity drives people like me, and THAT is one reason you should listen to and trust me. I’m so concerned about your doubts – and my own – that I will give nothing less than 110% every day. Please believe that I (and every other young manager) am conscious of making any mistakes that leave you questioning your decision to pay me actual dollars. Believe that I will analyze and re-analyze every email, assignment, data point, and slide until I am absolutely sure my output justifies my being here. I think I can be good at this. I want you to know I can.
3. Because You’re Guilty of Your Accusation
Perhaps the biggest complaint made about new young managers, and the major reason newly minted MBAs receive so much pushback, is that we approach new jobs and new teams with a sense of entitlement. “You kids just walk in here thinking you know everything” or “You act like you know better than everyone else” is what it boils down to, I’ve been told.
But let’s examine that for a minute: you’re suggesting that I, without taking the time to feel the environment out and learn the ropes, and based only on what I know about myself and my abilities, assume that I know enough to run this place. Harsh, but okay. The thing is that the accusation is coming from someone who, without taking the time to feel me out and learn my skill-set, and based only on what they know about their experience and my age, has assumed I can’t. You’ve decided – based on my youth – that I can’t know what I’m talking about, or at least that I can’t know as much as you do. Who, then, is really guilty of “entitlement”?
In the interest of decency, let’s burn this nest of comfortable cross-assumptions and make a deal: don’t assume I’m a know-it-all whippersnapper with no chops, and I won’t assume you’re a relic of the Betamax age who is threatened by change. Speck in my eye. Log in yours.
4. I Might be Really Good at This
After getting to know me a bit, you might be surprised to discover that the reason I got the role is that I – and my ilk – have potential. I am by no means finished product, but at 27 I offer the balance of possessing enough experience to know how to tie my shoes, but without being overly set in my bad habits.
Let’s review how I got here: There’s my undergraduate degree, and my MBA from what you know to be a fairly competitive program. The people who accepted me into that MBA program saw a bit of potential in me. My former managers who wrote my recommendations to the admissions committee were willing to serve as witnesses to my ability to execute within a team. Your hiring team had 15 different interviews with me and decided I was the guy. I know it seems unlikely that anyone under 30 can possibly “get it,” but maybe I’m different. All those people seem to think so.
Ted (Tim? Jim?), there’s a growing list of people I’ve had to prove myself to in order to get here from where I started 10 years ago. I might be better at this thing than you are willing to give me credit for.
5. This Isn’t New
If we’re both being honest, none of this is new or unexpected. Your pushback doesn’t appall me. With every generation that joins the work force, another generation of cantankerous “old people” is created, shaking their fists at the impertinence of the new class of managers. Actually, with any new generation ofanything, there is typically an older generation exercising the right to be offended, purely on principle.
It’s not an easy reflex to avoid. Even now I wince when my 23 year-old brother tries to tell me what to do. And he’s family! But close your eyes and remember what it was like to be 25, when you had to manage people, and when all you wanted was to be taken seriously. Remember the sweat on your brow at that first team presentation? That Konica projector whirring ominously? The laser pointer you nervously shot through the SVP’s eyes?
Now open your eyes and here you are, blooded in, full of experience, and leaking virtue. I’m you 15 years ago (except with nicer shoes.) So teach me. Support me. Don’t condescend. Don’t stereotype. Push me. Question me. Educate me. If you are that much wiser, show me. Be the team member you wish you had when you were in my shoes, how many odd years ago. Trust me as a capable young leader, the type you knew you were too.
No, I don’t “know it all”. Not nearly. Can young managers be a little out of line sometimes? Absolutely. But not all of us. And the majority of us do have something to offer. We bring fresh perspective, new energy, a fair amount of skill and ability, and an outlook attuned to solving problems in the digital marketplace. In this age of the internet of things, we can be insightful.
Are all older teammates difficult and mistrusting? Not at all. Some are supportive, and patient and – quite frankly – impressed. They mentor and stand by us in the face of those early slip-ups. They “get it.”
Most importantly, we’re on the same team. That is why, despite knowing we have gaps to fill and pitfalls to avoid if we are to shepherd our company to the next stage of its evolution, I’m confident that it can be done with that magic pairing of young managers and experienced teammates. Teammates like you, Ted. Managers like me.
This article was initially published on TRN Magazine.
About the Author: Tayo Akisanya is an MBA 2014 student and Legatum Fellow at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
About TRN Magazine: TRN Magazine (www.trnmagazine.com) is a niche online magazine creating meaningful and culturally relevant content targeting African entrepreneurs, professionals and students. Our vision is to provide experiential insights for young Africans who aspire to make a difference.
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.