Traditionally leadership roles were reserved for those with the most experience, yet the rise of young leaders in technology companies has challenged that notion.
Companies such as Spotify, Facebook, Airbnb, Asana were all founded or run by leaders under the age of 40. This has eroded the traditional belief that great leadership comes with experience. This movement has also inspired many young entrepreneurs to start their own ventures, and with the barriers to starting your own business go down, many start-up founders jump into founder roles right out of school. So despite their lack of professional experience, how can young leaders ensure they do just that; lead?
In an interview with Nafisa Bakkar, CEO of amaliah.com, Nafisa recounts her learning curve when starting out leader her business. Nafisa founded her company alongside her sister right after graduating from university. It was when she closed her first round of funding that she very quickly realised she didn’t have many options; she needed to hustle hard to learn not only how to build a company but to manage a team as well, or walk away from her dream. The future was all on her shoulders, quite a lot to carry for someone under the age of thirty. Yet Nafisa’s journey is not that uncommon anymore, as job stability starts to look more like a myth, there has been an increasing trend for younger people to be their own boss and start their own ventures. As any business owner knows, one of the key parts to starting your own business is building and leading your team. Young entrepreneurs may not have the years under their belts, but that doesn’t mean they can’t lead.
Nafisa has some hard learnings when it came to this part of her job, as she says; "When it comes to managing people there is not set curriculum and it can be challenging to know when you’re doing it right and when you are doing it wrong."
This can take some people more time to realise than others and the sooner young leaders connect with this the better. Leading is having the courage to try different approaches and see which one lands best. Be able to equip yourself with tools, approaches and styles allow you to adapt to different people, from stakeholders to team members. It all counts.
In order for young leaders to make the most of their lack of time in the boardroom, they can leverage their youth by doing the following.
Be curious (and stay that way)
For young leaders it is important to not make assumptions and to be open to learning and the best way to learn is to ask questions. Young leaders can leverage their youth by asking questions, and trying to know what you don’t know. Leaders cannot make up for lack of time but they can get a head start by uncovering their knowledge gaps and being inquisitive.
From schools like General Assembly to online classes like Udacity there are multiple and accessible learning opportunities available. Young leaders need to carve the time for learning early to catch bad practices early on. As for any leader it is important to keep this learning philosophy present for the rest of their career. As futurist Alvin Toffler puts it;
"The illiterate of the future will not be those who cannot read and write, but those that can’t learn, unlearn and relearn."
In an business environment that is constantly changing young leaders must stray from the past most travelled and find new routes to reach their goals.
Lean on mentors
On top of traditional learning, there is much insight to gain from our own networks. Many young entrepreneurs rely heavily on mentorship, both from their existing networks to forging new connections. Mentors come from different backgrounds and experiences, from professors to old family friends. Young leaders can use their curiosity to seek out those mentors and to not shy away from asking for help.
It has never been easier to reach people thanks to social sites such as LinkedIn. Done in the right way young leaders should do what they can with what they have to reach out to leaders in their industry. As Nafisa found when she started to reach out to people in her industry, most of them were extremely receptive to her ask for advice and she didn’t spend more time than she needed to for those that weren’t.
Young leaders should pull from experienced mentors to help shine a light on areas that they don’t have experience in. When working with mentors always be respectful and thankful for their input and time, keep them up to date with the progress being made or outcome that happened thanks to their input.
Young leaders should get in the habit of practicing self-reflection early on in their career. This practice will not only have benefit in the short term but is a necessary skill for great leadership. The business environment constantly changes, so do our teams and what worked well once might not in the future.
It’s important to make the connection that in order to connect and lead others one has to understand themselves first. Young leaders can get a head start by reflecting on their skills, weaknesses, communication styles and motivations. A good place to start is to understand what personal values do they hold as these values are what drive interests and ambitions. The clearer we are about our personal values the better decisions we are able to make.
One of Nafisa’s biggest moments of reflection was that as a manager her team is a mirror of her actions. She says "If there is something going on in the team then that’s likely on me, and it’s my role to reflect and think of what caused it and what to do to move them forward."
Young leaders must take responsibility for their actions and behaviours and for what they can’t make up in experience they can make up by self-reflecting and understanding themselves as this will enable them to lead their businesses and teams.
Leadership takes a whole lot of courage and young leaders need to build strategies to help them overcome obstacles (which they will inevitably face) but also remember to have fun and enjoy their youth. Staying curious, leaning on mentors and being able self-reflect will go a long way both in the present and in the future. Adopting good practices early on will set up young leaders for success no matter what endeavour they choose. Young leaders need not wait for job titles or work experience to define their ability to lead, leadership starts from within and can happen at any age.