I started and sold my first company, ChiTown Deals, before most of my peers had finished college. Not only did I have to secure investors and convince others of the profitability of a "group coupon" before sites like Groupon became well known, but I had to prove myself as a leader despite being under the age of 25.
Young entrepreneurs—myself included—can be seen as having a lack of professional experience; however, many are turning that idea on its head through a combination of hard work, knowledge, and confidence, paired with results. Here's how they do it.
Whether you are starting your own company or working your way up at someone else's, establishing yourself as a leader is important. Young leaders need to find the right balance when interacting with co-workers, which can be a concern whether they are older than you are or the same age. Remember that you all bring your own specific skill set to the team. "Broadcast the fact that you have expertise in your domain," advises Emerson Spartz, CEO of Spartz Media, who started popular Harry Potter site MuggleNet over a decade ago at the age of 12. "Too many people hope that their expertise will become apparent to those who do business with them, and that's simply naive. Whether or not it's fair, people will judge you because of your age, so you need to be up front about where you can contribute value and what you have done to deserve their respect."
There is a learning curve when entering into the professional world, especially when you suddenly have a team of people under you. The common thread among many of the professionals interviewed was that twentysomething leaders need to be open to changing approaches based on what does—and doesn't—work.
Joel Gross, founder and CEO of Coalition Technologies, adds that while critiquing superior's leadership style can be easy, putting those same critiques into practice when the roles are reversed is not. "In the beginning it was my way or the highway when it came to making policy decisions or any decision in the company. I have had to realize that I am not an expert in all things," says Gross. "Listening to what [your co-workers and clients] have to say, and if necessary, implementing a change is one of the best things you can do to earn authority and respect from co-workers and clients."
In addition to being adaptable in your practices, Evan Bailyn, who started his first company at 23 and currently runs First Page Sage, adds, "No matter your age, if you project a sense of confidence, professionalism, and single-mindedness about getting your job done, employees see you as a ‘boss.' If you seem unsure about how to regard them, they can sense it in a minute."
While creating a name for yourself at work is a good first step, don't stop there: Continually work to gain experience outside of the office including networking and taking public speaking opportunities. "By giving presentations, guest lecturing, [and] doing interviews, you can rehearse and better handle situations with clients and co-workers," says HERO|farm's cofounder Shaun Walker, noting that networking and being an active presence in the community and networking to increase recognition is also vital. The company's CEO Reid Stone adds, "The more you put yourself out there and are seen, the more name recognition you earn. Your age pretty much becomes a non-issue as you have earned that incredibly important third-party validation."
Spartz and I have both put this theory into practice: We are both published authors and are also on the board for Project Impact, a group that provides grants, management support, and networking opportunities to early stage nonprofits. Incorporating work outside the office helps to establish your name in the community and build a network of external validation that positively reflects on your company. Walker adds, "We formed HERO|farm with a social mission not only to help us break away from the old way of doing things and stand out, but also because we wanted to make a difference." While it is easy to focus solely on the financial return of a project, contributing to unpaid ventures for good causes not only offers valuable experience, but also helps build a professional persona that people remember, regardless of your age.
Leadership abilities aren't only developed in the professional world. High school and college also offer skill-developing opportunities. It all comes down to translating what you've learned from other fields to your current position. I started my first company while still in college, but my leadership abilities started to develop earlier on. I honed my speaking skills on my high school debate team and fueled my entrepreneurial spirit as a president and active member of Junior Achievement, where we created mock companies that would sell real items to develop business knowledge.
Many of the professional leaders we spoke with mentioned a job or a group in which they were involved when asked about developing leadership ability as a teen and in their twenties, as well. Max Cummings credits his assertiveness and responsibility to being a lifeguard as a teen, while Joel Gross says that he played football in high school and was in a fraternity at his college, which fostered an understanding of team dynamics.
If you weren't heavily involved in extracurriculars during school, don't fret. There are just as many that say that they learned their leadership skills through introspection and being aware of the leadership style of others. "When it comes down to it, a good leader is constantly developing," says James Schwabach, Peak Performance Trainer for Apex Performance, Inc. who specializes in leadership development for business executives and professional athletes. "The skills that develop leader capacities are situational awareness, calmness under pressure, mental flexibility, and positive thinking. If you develop those skills, then you'll be a good leader whether you're 21 or 71."
Jess Loren is cofounder of Kambio Group, a digital marketing agency that concentrates on social media management and event-based campaigns. Kristen Micek contributed additional research. Follow Jess on Twitter.
[Image: Flickr user yago1.com]