Sherri Leopard has experienced being unique many times in her career. During her early professional life as a marketing consultant in technology, Leopard found herself in projects where she would be the only female member, as well as the youngest. Having grown up in a lower-middle-class household, she also found herself at odds with many of her privileged friends who graduated from elite colleges. Yet she persevered and thrived, building and running a marketing consultancy with blue-chip clients such as IBM, SAP, Siemens, and Motorola. In 2006, she sold her consultancy, Leopard, to advertising giant WPP. Leopard became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ogilvy & Mather.
Many years later, as a senior adviser and entrepreneur-in-residence for SYPartners, Leopard would find herself–once again–as the unique person in the room. But this time, it would be as the oldest person in an office full of twenty- and thirtysomethings. Leopard recently chatted to Fast Company about how working with younger employees has helped shaped her way of thinking, and the misconceptions about older workers that she wishes everyone would drop. Here’s her experience in her own words, edited for length and clarity.
What It’s Like To Be Decades Older Than All Your Coworkers
All of the people that I work with on a day-to-day basis are 20 to 30 years younger than me. The company is young, young, young, and many of them come from prestigious schools. Me? I went to Metropolitan State University in Denver. I came from a lower-middle-class upbringing–and I think part of the way that manifests in me is being really practical. Everyone else would have these debates about really minute things, and I tend to be super impatient and cut to the chase. Of course, I’ve had to learn to do it in a way that doesn’t stifle people’s creativity.
To be honest, I don’t think people tend to focus on the fact that I’m older. There is a designer on my team who is 24 years old, and the other day he told me, I think of you as a mentor, but you’re not someone who just gives me advice, because you’ve done all these things. We get in and figure out stuff together and when we’re solving a problem. We’re solving it as equals.
On Learning From Younger Workers
As a former CEO who happens to be the oldest person in the office, over my three years at SYPartners, I’ve really struggled with not being right and the need to be right. It took a while for me to be comfortable with learning from the young people who challenge me. That’s been a journey. In one of my earliest projects, that was really hard. I was on a team that just saw things so differently.
The perspective shift came during my work with BlackRock–who we’ve been working with on their diversity and inclusion initiatives. Something finally jelled in my brain, and now it’s much easier to be in situations where people are challenging my thinking. Had I learned that earlier in my career, I would have been a much better CEO. I’ve realized that we need those differences in the workplace to solve the sorts of complex problems we’re presented with today.
Of course, there will always be a generational gap. When I hear about young women discussing salaries, I think, in my generation, people didn’t talk about what they got paid. But I think that young people are a lot smarter because that transparency is going to pay off.
Another obvious generational gap is my aversion to social media. I feel like young people around me try to pull me into that world and occasionally I’ll go, okay, I get it, I get why I need to do it. But I’ve had times where I’ve gone through six rounds of writing a Medium post and I can never bring myself to post it. The younger people will be telling me, “Just do it, and you’ll get more comfortable.” But I still can’t do it.
On The Importance Of Endurance
I think that my stamina is an advantage I have, as an older worker. When I was doing marketing and communications work, I did a lot of speech writing. I’d have clients call me very last minute, often very early in the morning. I remembered watching my then client, a senior VP at IBM, outwork me even though he was probably 20 years older. At that time I realized, oh my gosh, the game here is actually endurance. I realized then how important it is to be physically strong, eat healthy, exercise, and just be really mindful about my health. I think that investment I’ve been making for years in my health is really paying off. Today, young people in my team will go, geez, you’re the Energizer bunny!
Related: Why You Should Recruit Older Workers
On Misconceptions About Being An Older Worker
I feel like there’s this misconception that older people just can’t keep up, whether that’s keeping up with anything in the world, or physically. Well, I’m just going to prove in my little circle of the world that we can keep up. I do think that to succeed at this age, you need to have a growth mind-set. There are so many people my age who believe that the world is prejudiced against them. I deeply believe that there’s an experience in all of us that can be reshaped and reapplied in a new way. The question is, do you choose to reinvent yourself?