Overcoming Age Bias and Building Credibility with Senior Stakeholders
As I commenced my professional career, I was anxious, often wondering if the seasoned executives I was interacting with were actually taking me seriously. One of the most significant hurdles that I have had to continually overcome is age bias. My role requires me to engage closely with some of the most high-profile executives and business leaders in Melbourne and I can attest to the perception that younger consultants do not have the skills, experience or knowledge to advise or provide expert counsel. Many hiring managers that I’ve dealt with have shared concerns regarding my length of work experience and were open about their preference to deal with more seasoned (yes, older) counterparts in the industry.
However, I never let these obstacles stand in my way and I’ve developed a framework to develop incredibly strong relationships with senior stakeholders. Here are my tips to gain credibility and nurture meaningful professional relationships:
Acknowledge and Embrace the Challenge
I commenced my career, like many graduates… bright eyed and eager to embrace an opportunity to work as part of the corporate landscape. The first month was a complete blur, but I was a quick learner and what I lacked in polish, I made up for in enthusiasm. I was fiercely hungry and in spite of any setback, I was fully prepared to take feedback and learn the ropes.
As my role was heavily geared towards business development, the age barrier bias was highlighted when hiring managers would state a clear preference towards senior partners, or counterparts within the industry. It was evident that whilst I was building rapport and attracting a level of personal engagement with these prospective clients, the perceived notion of me being a ‘trusted advisor’ and ‘subject matter expert’ was a barrier to business which I had not anticipated. As the anecdotal instances continued to mount up, frustration set in and I quickly slid down a path of self-doubt, which resulted in an ongoing lack of confidence.
Rather than wallow, I took action and expressed my vulnerability to the team at Alex Kaar. To my surprise, I received praise and support from experienced colleagues and partners of the firm. They shared their personal stories, experiences and learnings, which were similar to mine. This provided significant comfort and context through the initial stages of my career and I felt much less isolated. They counseled me to focus on my strengths and to demonstrate to prospective clients my value, acknowledging age as a benefit, not an obstacle, which encompassed an eagerness to listen and learn and a tenacity and hunger to succeed and communicate my need to prove myself.
Since that moment, I made the decision to embrace age bias and address the ‘elephant in the room’ right from the outset. My newly formed philosophy is to ‘lean in and embrace the challenge’ and so far, it’s yielding great results.
Asking Questions, Being Authentic and Going Above and Beyond
At the beginning of the century, David Maister, Charles M. Green and Rob Galford wrote their book ‘The Trusted Advisor’ where they explored the definition of trust and the measurement of credibility for consultants, negotiators and business advisors.
In today’s fast-paced and ever-changing business landscape, executives must work harder than ever to build, maintain and improve their business skills and knowledge. However, technical mastery is simply not enough. Maister, Green and Galford argue that it is the ability to earn trust and confidence that’s the key to professional success in the long term.
The ability to be seen as a credible and trusted contributor to an organisation is developed over time. There is no right or wrong formula, however there are ways to ensure you give yourself the best opportunity when dealing with senior stakeholders…
Firstly, pose and develop highly sophisticated questions which encourage not only learning and development, but also a demonstration of an eagerness to contribute more broadly across the team. There is no such thing as a ‘silly question’ and adopting a growth mindset will create a higher level of credibility with a wider range of leaders. Furthermore, demonstrating authenticity and respect to a senior stakeholder will instantly create an opportunity for further growth and development. Acknowledging that those senior stakeholders were once in your shoes, will guide you on a path of being able to accelerate your progress.
Secondly, being able to go ‘above and beyond’ your remit and role will certainly go a long way in further building credibility with internal senior stakeholders. One current factor to consider in today’s multi-generational workforce is the reputation and stigma attached to ‘Gen Z’. Acknowledging that perception can often be reality, the general consensus is reasonably negatively geared towards younger executives. Whilst the reasons are contentious, an opportunity exists for younger professionals to genuinely ‘stand out’ and exhibit a willingness and work ethic which will resonate closely with senior stakeholders in an organisation. This comes through action, not words, so by demonstrating through small gestures and initiatives that you are prepared to ‘volunteer’ your time and work hard, you are increasingly displaying further maturity which results in building greater credibility.
Support from Advocates
Advocacy is and will always be a significant part of an executive’s success in building relationships internally and externally. How you are referenced and the reputation that you bring to an organisation will often dictate your success in driving outcomes. Advocacy is paramount to the success of an executive entering into an organisation.
Strong relationships are critical for long-term advocacy and to drive meaningful business outcomes in any organisation. Where possible, build rapport, trust and influence with decision-makers directly. There are no shortcuts to building trust and advocacy and investing in relationships must be an ongoing activity. One theme worth remembering is to always help others without the expectation of receiving anything in return. Whilst this will not apply in every scenario, the ability to be generous with your time and assistance will ensure that you are deemed as a trustworthy and generous person and the likelihood of the stakeholder eventually “paying back the debt” is high.
Time is Your Friend, Don’t Rush it
In the context of business, your ability to balance and contribute your support will allow senior stakeholders to appropriately advocate for your skill set, work ethic and character. As a young executive, you will not be able to accelerate time and expedite the journey (trust me, I’ve tried) to reach the same level of experience as your senior peers. However, what you can control is your unwavering work ethic, willingness to learn and ability to offer support.
A senior stakeholder will almost always be grateful for a younger executive to demonstrate interest in understanding more about their respective career journey or to offer support in the delivery of a pressing deliverable. Your ability to develop sound and sustainable relationships with senior stakeholders will very often be the difference between your internal promotion, an external opportunity being presented or you being selected to deliver on a key project.
I initially drafted my thoughts on this piece prior to the Covid 19 situation that has quickly spread devastation across the globe and I’ve used this time to reflect on the meaning of relationships through life and business.
The one advantage younger executives have over their more mature counterparts is time. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to develop relationships too quickly. Invest for the long term, be consistent in your interactions and remember… All those senior stakeholders were young once too!