In Summer 2005, I was a 22-year-old bank teller in Boston and a freelance writer for small-town Kentucky newspapers, with a bachelor's degree from Western Kentucky University still hot off the printing press. I was preparing to begin a master's program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT that fall. As part of the program, I would help launch a research group on how the dynamics were shifting between media/marketing companies and their audiences, and new ways that people were engaging with and around stories.
Our research group had no foundation funding. MIT wasn't putting up any seed money. Instead, it was this group's success in finding partners that would determine the degree of student loan debt with which I'd graduate. A research group with no name, no partners, and no funding, staffed with one recent graduate, a student one year into the program, and myself, along with three comrades who weren't even officially students yet. With the directors of the program often traveling, it sometimes fell on us to meet directly with potential partners and persuade them to consider joining us--this first-generation college graduate bank teller and my ragtag band of colleagues.
The executives we met with could have either seen a group of neophyte students who would be an awfully risky bet for their organization's research funds or a cadre of compelling thinkers who were looking deeply--and differently--at emerging trends in digital media. Our success depended in part on how we thought about and presented ourselves to corporate leaders with decades more experience than us. Thankfully, we ended up signing companies like Turner Broadcasting, MTV Networks, and Viacom as initial partners--and I left MIT with much less student debt than I'd feared.
Three years later, I left a full-time job running the MIT Consortium to become a consultant with communications and marketing firm Peppercomm. Again, I could have been seen as a 25-year-old kid who had spent his first quarter-century in school without working in "the real world," and with no experience in marketing, public relations, or advertising. Instead, I was seen as a media-studies researcher and MIT project manager bringing new ways of thinking to the corporate communications space at a time when the industry was tackling digital communications practices and cultural shifts that veterans in the industry couldn't necessarily solve.
For those of you who find yourselves in positions today where you are managing employees or consulting with professionals who have many more years' experience in the business than you, here are a few rules of thumb that have guided my relationships with such veterans.
First, let's start with three don'ts:
- Don't Underestimate Your Intelligence. Whether you're a young professional offering counsel to a client, presenting your startup to a potential customer, or managing veteran employees, you run a significant risk of lacking gravitas when you don't believe in yourself. If you think your age or amount of experience is an issue, you stand little chance of convincing others of anything. If you self-censor or are overly deferential to those with longer tenures, they'll never see the insight you can provide.
- Don't Overestimate Your Knowledge. While some young professionals diminish their own abilities through self-censorship, others undercut their ability to be respected by taking themselves way too seriously. If you have relatively few years in your industry, always be cognizant that others you work with know much more about the history of the industry and the culture of the organization or the field than you do. Make every conversation a learning opportunity, and demonstrate that desire to learn openly.
- Don't Be Afraid to Admit What You Don't Know. Be honest when you encounter something you don't yet know. That honesty will not only help build trust but will also allow you to be a student of the industry and/or the organization. Asking questions can help build relationships. And the more you become a student at your job, the quicker any knowledge gap will shrink.
And, now, for 3 dos:
- Do Take Advantage of Your Fresh Perspective. A relative lack of experience also means a perspective that doesn't carry with it the baggage of history. Bring new questions to longstanding assumptions. Challenge logics that may be outdated. Think about what your industry isn't doing or about issues in the contemporary landscape that no one in the field is solving. If you approach these questions thoughtfully and respectfully, your team or client will see why they need your perspective.
- Do Openly Seek What Others Can Offer You. Let those veterans who work for or with you know that you are relying on them for their experience, knowledge, and advice. A trusted set of senior advisers will help you overcome any challenges your lack of tenure brings with it and will safeguard against any concerns about your age. And taking others' opinions seriously increases the likelihood that they'll take you more seriously as well.
- Do Show Them, Rather Than Tell Them, What You Know. If you perceive someone is skeptical about your age, the last thing that will convince them is bragging. Show them your fresh thinking through actions. As you become a student of your field, weave knowledge of that history into your conversation naturally. You'll prove yourself through action, not boasts.
Age isn't an issue; immaturity is. Showing people the new perspectives you can offer while demonstrating humility and a passion to learn what you don't know is a surefire recipe for being taken seriously, and for your age to perhaps even be seen as a benefit rather than a liability.