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How To Be Taken Seriously As A Young Leader

Building your leadership brand will make you a memorable and effective leader. Here are six ways to do it.

How To Be Taken Seriously As A Young Leader
[Photo: Flickr user Gabriel Saldana]

Young leaders (35 and under) possess self-confidence, drive, and creative thinking. Yet they often struggle with how to present themselves as leaders when working with leaders from older generations. Regardless of age, it’s important to cultivate what I call your Leadership Brand. It is a blend of self-worth, talent, value, and perception that is unique to each person, regardless of role or title.

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Recognizing and building your Leadership Brand is a critical part of success in leadership. A strong brand will make you a memorable and effective leader. Here are six ways to do it.

1. Start with a career strategy

Young leaders are intuitively aware of their brands and reputations. What’s often missing is some systemic thinking. This means having a career strategy in place with a set of milestones and goals. It includes proactively and intentionally promoting ideas via content and speaking. Don’t wait to be discovered. Don’t wait to be asked to speak. Just go get in front of the right people on a consistent basis.

On a practical level, this means having something worthwhile to say and a platform to say it on that doesn’t suck. For example, having a complete LinkedIn profile, consistently writing on your area of expertise on a blogging platform, and speaking to business groups or internally in company meetings or trainings. In short, write and speak regularly and coherently.

2. Figure out what your driving principles are

As with any brand (personal or corporate) you must organize first around what you believe, and then organize around a set of talents or an area of expertise. Knowing what you believe is the result of introspection and self-awareness. A simple exercise is to write down five principles or values that you are willing to risk everything for. If you don’t have values that you are willing to commit to, then you don’t have a foundation to build your brand on.

Secondly, you need to embrace your awesomeness. This is looking at internal things like “natural” gifts (things that seem easy for you to do) or learned skills, along with leadership traits like building deep relationships. Once you have these, they will become a never-ending spring of content to draw from and brand yourself around.

3. Master social as a branding tool

The purpose of social media as it relates to brands is to build a following and create valuable influence. If your mission is just to get “likes” or “followers,” then you’re missing the point.

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Conversely, laboring away in anonymity just means that you suck at branding yourself. In the chasm between these two areas is an intentional approach to building and nurturing a following.

The first test is: “Are you interesting?” If the person’s feed is full of platitudes and over-promotion, that’s not interesting. The second is: “Do you add value?” This means being an original thinker, with your own ideas—or at least a fresh take on trends, other people’s ideas, etc. The third one is simple. “Would we be friends in real life?” If not, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t connect with someone on social media. But it likely means that the relationship wouldn’t form in real life.

4. Develop branding In Real Life

Branding is the amplification of who you are in real life, so here are some non-digital ways to be better leader—and a better human:

Dress for the occasion
Having a sense of style that represents your brand is key. For young leaders, this is somewhere between trying too hard and not trying enough. The goal is to find a style that is reflective of your true self—one that makes a statement of intentionality and professionalism.

Learn public speaking skills
The ability to inspire an audience with your ideas and insights is a timeless skill. I highly recommend Dale Dixon’s book Sweating Bullets as well as joining a group like Toastmasters. Most of all, look for and/or create opportunities to speak.

Expand your self-worth
When you are creating a leadership brand, you are presenting to the world the best version of yourself. So you must invest in your self-worth by staying or getting healthy and fit, spending time with people who give you energy, traveling, learning, reading, and so on.

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Two-way mentoring
For the first time in history, as many as five different age groups are in the workforce. And we can all learn from each other. Rather than traditional one-way mentoring, seek out older leaders who can learn from you. While they are a tremendous resource for experience, wisdom and guidance, you are also a mentor of value related to new ideas, technology, etc.

Get out of the office
Mark Twain said that the only cure for narrowness is travel. So you need to get out of the office. Go to mixers and networking events. Join non-work related groups around a hobby or activity. Go to conferences. The best young leaders I know do these things with or without their company’s endorsement. They know the investment in any of these areas will lead to broadened borders, new relationships and more opportunities.

5. Showing up is not enough

If you are competing against or working in an environment with lots of gen-Xers or boomers, your age alone isn’t enough of a differentiator. You must still break perceptions. However, you need to learn to amplify without being overly aggressive or perceived as disrespectful. Millennials bring a sense of equality to age and meritocracy. While noble in its intention, age and rank are still valued by everyone above the age of 35.

In short, “When in Rome” is a good initial strategy in order to build respect and credibility. That said, when you get a chance to speak, speak your mind boldly. When you get a chance to lead, lead with confidence. And if you don’t get a chance to lead or speak, go create your own opportunities.

If you have your own convictions, your own ideas, and you believe in your talent, the world is waiting to hear from you.

Justin Foster is a brand strategist, speaker, and author based in Austin, TX. He is also a faculty member for The Complete Leader.

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