Letter to Young Leaders

Published November 2013

I have a wide range of musical interests. Depending on my mood, I enjoy classical, hard and soft rock, country and almost everything in between. Recently Iíve had Brad Paisleyís Letter to Me stuck in my head. Released in 2007, itís a clever tune in which Paisley offers advice to himself as a 17-year-old.

That got me to thinking about what advice I would offer to myself as a new, 27-year-old manager. Like Paisleyís song, hopefully the next generation can benefit. Here goes:

First of all, congratulations. Senior leaders didnít simply pull your name out of a hat. They recognized that you possess some unique skills in leading and managing people. Your age was certainly discussed, and the risks associated with it were determined to be manageable.

That said, donít feel too good about yourself. Youíre no better or worse than anyone else on the team Ö just different. Youíre simply being directed to the right seat on the bus for you to fulfill the organizationís mission.

I understand that itís a bit intimidating managing former co-workers, some of which have been working here longer than youíve been alive. Heck, Roger helped you get started, and now it sometimes feels like assigning jobs to your parents.

But you donít need to apologize for the situation. Most of the older workers figured out years ago that they either didnít possess the skills or the desire to manage others. They just want to do a good job focusing on the technical aspects of the job, not worrying about others. And besides, they also recognize that youíve got leadership skills.

Oh, and about the technical aspects of the job. Realize that you will sacrifice technical skills with this change. But letís be honest. You were a good engineer with potential to be very good. But you were never going to become a great engineer (that ďknowledgeĒ from advanced math and control theory courses never really survived past the required final exam, did it?).

Your age wonít be a major detriment to success. Most of what you need to know about working with people, you learned from Mom and Dad. That time you had to lead that ragtag patrol of Boy Scouts to build a fire in a steady downpour in order to eat taught you teamwork.

In fact, your management style wonít change dramatically with age. Sure, youíll have a few more experiences to draw upon, increasing your confidence. Youíll mellow a bit, become a bit more patient. Youíll listen better and longer before talking. The sooner you develop those traits, the better.

Continue to invest in deep, meaningful relationships with a handful of older employees you respect, including leaders. Their perspective will put things into context during tough times. And there will be tough times.

Your youth can actually be a real asset. Similar to investing, many managers tend to get more conservative with age. They perceive that they have more to lose and so they unintentionally play not to lose. Play to win!

Oh, and hereís an ďAha!Ē moment that youíll have in about 20 years. I might as well share it with you now so you have an additional two decades of benefit: Itís not about delivering great results Ö itís about developing people and a place where great results can be consistently delivered.

Along that line, like so many American managers, you want to solve problems quickly and directly. When you see something that works for another organization, you canít wait to duplicate it. But donít copy the tool; instead replicate the problem solving process that developed the tool. That way youíll have a solution that better fits your specific problem and situation, plus youíll be developing problem solving employees.

Finally, and most important, remember this isnít even your most important job. Be a good spouse and parent first. You only get one chance to raise your kids. You wonít regret it.

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