“The future belongs to young people with an education and the imagination to create,” said US President Barrack Obama. But for the young or youthful of appearance trying to make headway in the workplace, the more pertinent question is likely to be: How do I make a difference now?
All the research shows that first impressions do count, appearances can matter, and your level of skill and experience is a factor in how seriously you’re taken. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make your mark as the youngest kid on the block.
1. START WITH YOURSELF
If you fear that your colleagues don’t take you seriously, ask yourself if they’re taking a cue from you. Are you channelling limiting beliefs about yourself and your own worth? If so, then adopting a new mindset about your unique talents and contributions can slowly but surely send a new message to those around you that you mean business. Start by looking at your recruitment process: In what ways did you impress? Why were you chosen about all the other candidates? Respect the opinions of the hiring manager who gave you a chance and believes in you – to believe that you’re not taken seriously is to undermine their decision as much as it is your own worth.
“[It] hadn’t been some kind of trick; it was an indication of its members’ confidence in me,” says an everywoman Incoginto columnist who suffered a crisis of confidence after being voted onto a board, aged just 25.
Boost your confidence by looking at all you’ve learned from your limited time in the workplace. Conduct a thorough analysis of your strengths and weaknesses, set yourself some career goals and milestones to achieve, and start building and nurturing a network. “You can’t control the biases of those around you, but you can control the messages and actions you give them to work with. Remember, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” says Leadership Coach Lolly Daskal.
2. LET YOUR PRESENCE OVERRIDE YOUR APPEARANCE
First impressions, research shows, can be powerful and difficult to overcome. But looking young or younger than you do is just one small part of what your colleagues will base their early assumptions on. Elevate your confidence, practice strong, powerful body language and ensure you look the part and that will go a long way to how you’re perceived from the off.
“If you look polished and professional and carry yourself with poise, that’s going to go a long way toward countering the fact that you look young. Come across as super professional and I won’t care how young you look. The reason someone might care about you looking young, after all, is that they might think you were a lightweight. Drive home the point that you’re not,” says workplace advice columnist Alison Green.
“People wearing white coats and carrying clipboards are more trusted than those wearing civilian clothes,” says Management Consultant Cindy Tonkin. “Find the equivalent in your business of a ‘white coat and clipboard’, and use it. This could be glasses, hairstyle or a suit. Perhaps it is certificates on the wall. Or regular features in a trusted publication, on TV or radio. When you have authority, age becomes less important.”
3. APPRECIATE YOU HAVE LOTS TO LEARN
If others think you lack experience, it might simply be because it’s true. Everyone has to start somewhere and learn as they go and you’re no exception. If you are denied involvement in certain areas or situations because of your inexperience, take an honest assessment of the gaps in your skillset and make a plan for plugging them. Share your plan with your line manager or mentor and ask for stretch assignments or work shadowing opportunities that can help you develop.
“The fastest way to win people over is by being humble. Humility doesn’t mean a lack of confidence, but that you’re aware you don’t know everything and that you’re willing to learn,” says Daskal.
Don’t stop once you’ve ticked off those initial gaps. “Even if you do have the qualifications, make sure you improve your profile and continue to build experience: go to school, shadow an expert, find a mentor, write a book, get some media coverage. Make sure no-one can deny you’ve got the skills,” advises Tonkin.
4. FIND SAME-AGE ROLE MODELS
There’s a misconception that role models need always be those people who’ve done everything and worn the T-Shirt. While older, more experience role models can provide plenty of inspiration, so too can women of your own age or slightly older, who have plenty to say about how they’ve won over age-based discriminators. Browse TED Talks, lists like Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 and panel talks organised by women’s networks until you find someone who resonates.
Observe the ways in which he or she commands authority and which elements you can authentically challenge.
5. NETWORK FAR AND WIDE
While you’re building up your portfolio of bright young upstart role models, don’t forget that the most successful and useful networks are often the most diverse. Put age aside when you decide who within your workplace you’re interested in getting to know - be open to taking advice from or learning about the backgrounds of people of all ages. In doing so, you might find someone who becomes an invaluable mentor or a sponsor of you in the workplace.
6. AVOID MAKING YOUR OWN GENERATIONAL STEREOTYPES
Check in with yourself: by assuming that the more experienced colleagues in your workplace aren’t taking you seriously on account of your youth, are you buying wholly into a stereotype about older generations?
If you’re fearful of being dismissed as a tech-obsessed millennial, ask yourself if you’re bringing any biases of your own about workers from other generations. Take everyone you meet on their own merit. “Generational stereotypes are far from being true across the board, and you will do no favours for your relationships with your new colleagues if you assume they are,” says Green. “Treat them like individuals rather than representatives of their generation.”
7. USE YOUTH TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
You’ve worked hard to eliminate many of the age-based disadvantages that may present you in your early career. Don’t forget to look at all the many ways that your youth can be a huge advantage.
“I brought a fresh perspective, new insight and unlimited energy. I also had knowledge – everyone around that table was an expert in some field and I was no exception. When the board needed advice on something pertaining to my background, I saw it as a platform to demonstrate my worth. I cultivated that expertise – reading everything I could get my hands on so I was always one step ahead. The confidence I got from turning up thoroughly prepared and polished was invaluable,” says our Incognito board member.
8. DON’T GET STUCK IN A RUT
If you’ve successfully used your youthfulness to your advantage, remain alert to pigeonholing as you progress. What works for you in your first role might not be as successful a strategy when you’re ready to make the transition to a more senior role. Check in regularly with your personal brand, ask yourself in what ways you’ve changed as your experience has unfolded and how you can authentically present new versions of yourself as you climb the career ladder.