The rise of young leaders

With their fashionable eyewear and cropped trousers, young leaders are making waves both behind the scenes and as leaders of organisations. Tech, in particular, provides a platform for those with great ideas and a knowledge of coding to really bloom. 

All these talented entrepreneurs means a shift to younger leadership. It’s not necessary to wait until the age of 50 to run a company or employ staff - now, some young people are seizing the day and becoming leaders significantly younger.

Mark Zuckerberg (26), Andrew Mason (founder of Groupon, 29), and Peter Cashmore (founder of Mashable, 24) aren’t complete anomalies. Although there’s probably a large difference between the size of their bank accounts and most young CEOs, the thing they have in common is they’re all young leaders.

For younger leaders, managing older colleagues at work requires patience and excellent communication. It’s also essential that young leaders, whether department heads or CEOs of the entire company know the business inside out. If they’re challenged, it’s easier to retaliate with facts and information, than just a smug look of youthful confidence. Young leaders are faced with the same situations that older ones are faced with - the need to build trust and good relationships, and the importance of progression. Yet, occasionally, being a young leader can also stimulate envy from older colleagues. They may question why they aren’t more senior, or be resentful not to have been given the top spot.

The concept of leadership is still built so much on age. It’s assumed that with age comes wisdom, whereas what many forward thinking tech companies require is youthful energy, knowledge, and enthusiasm.

Carl Reader is the founder of the leading franchise accountancy firm ‘D & T Accounting’. He is also the author of The Start Up Coach, a leading business advisor and has appeared in CityAM’s list of top 100 entrepreneurs. “In my experience the biggest challenge isn't around a lack of experience, it's actually respect from others, both in and out of the organisation. Often new ways of doing things are dismissed, and "old heads" can sometimes struggle to adapt emotionally to accept a younger boss. Whilst there is an uphill battle in gaining acceptance; by continually getting results and staying resilient, younger leaders will eventually win the respect of older members of their team.”

I was surprised by the reaction of older people to my role and business activities; there is often obvious jealousy of my position and achievements during conversations.

Joe Robson, the 21 year old CEO of MuscleRAGE, an online supplement store for bodybuilders, has experienced clear jealousy from some older people he’s worked with, even though the company is worth a quarter of million, just three years after Joe founded it.

As part of his role, Joe both manages and networks with a number of team members that are older than himself, including an outsourced digital marketing agency, and his dad, who is the joint founder of the business. "I was surprised by the reaction of older people (not including my team members) to my role and business activities; there is often obvious jealousy of my position and achievements during conversations.”

He adds that it’s not all completely one-sided, and that he’s learned a lot from older people who he’s worked with. “I have also learnt a lot from the knowledge and expertise of those older than myself, it's important to listen as well as lead. At the end of the day, my experience would fall in line with the idea that 'age is only a number!' When I'm speaking to my digital marketing agency or my dad, I don't think of them as older people: they're a crucial part of my successful team and in the case of my dad, my co-founder." 

Similarly, Charlotte Pearce, 24-year-old founder of Inkpact, says: “In my experience older employees are actually refreshed by my leadership style, there is a lot of autonomy in the team, no hierarchy and a huge focus on deliverables. We don’t change this style dependant on age.” She says that to start with, she found managing experienced staff challenging. 

“It didn’t take me long to realise that age isn’t something to focus on. It served to remind me not to let my age stop me doing something - it certainly shouldn’t change my leadership style. I believe that one of the most influencing factors to getting where I am today is being young and ambitious, but in parallel, surrounding myself with older people who not only inspire me but have also been in my shoes and succeeded.”

Yet, working with a generation gap can make communication challenging for younger leaders. Carl Reader points out that a young CEO might use Slack or WhatsApp, some older team members may be hesitant to communicate outside of face to face conversations. “In addition, younger CEOs have to work harder to persuade and influence their team about the vision for the business.”

Read more: Why leaders need to develop their own style

One leader, who asked not to be named, said that she moved from being a very active office environment, to retreating to her home. “I started to do all my work online using email, Google Drive, and Slack. It became easier doing everything from my home office than trying to negotiate with older men who thought they knew it all. Sure, they had a lot more experience than I did, but this was my idea, and using technology that I knew inside out.”

There are always risks associated with young entrepreneurs and leaders. They are at risk from appearing ‘uppity’ for example. But without younger people taking chances and really pushing the boundaries of what is expected, then the boundaries of brands or businesses won’t expand either. As in the goopy film The Intern, each generation can learn from the next. It’s too easy to assume that older people are stronger leaders, and younger people are automatically better at tech. Let’s blow away the dust here, challenge our preconceptions, and give people the benefit of the doubt, regardless of their age. 

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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