Several years ago in New York City I met a young guy doing fairly big things. Only 5 years out of college, he had been handpicked to lead marketing, public relations and advertising for the retail division of Liz Claiborne, what was then a $4.8 billion Fortune 500 fashion manufacturer. He named his own salary and secured a semi-corner office in the Empire State Building.
As Director of Marketing, his leadership peers were at least 10 years his senior and had spent several years in the fashion industry, a new vertical for the young up-and-comer. When we first met, what struck me about him was his apparent confidence – some would say arrogance – and professional demeanor that seemed well beyond his years. As we got to know one another, inevitably the subject of his age and “success” came up. He shared a few things that I’ve taken to heart throughout my career.
1) Don’t let people despise your age or use it against you. Misperceptions about demographics are part of life. Age, race, gender and other characteristics are words that describe you, not define you. Only you can do that.
2) Learn quickly but be honest about what you don’t know. Great leaders are good learners. Every new role comes with a knowledge gap that you must quickly close in order to add value to the organization. It also helps immensely to do a personal audit of your professional assets and liabilities so you can improve in critical areas.
3) Recognize your opponents and allies before they pick a side. Usually it takes about 100 days to accurately size up the architecture of an enterprise: skills, staff, systems, strategy, etc. Early buddies may be getting close to figure you out. Those co-workers that at first seemed stand-offish may just be more guarded than others. Be careful about who you align with and attempt to stay above any existing tensions until you can diagnose why they exist.
4) Lean in to your strengths. He was a creator, an innovator and a change maker. The iconic Liz Claiborne was in desperate need of his skills and he knew how to quickly move the brand needle. A key success element to any position is knowing the specific job you were hired to do and the role you fill. In his case, the fashion house had plenty of style gurus but not many brand drivers. He knew his role and where he could be accretive to the vision.
As you may have guessed, that 26-year-old corporate stud muffin was me. I learned all these things because I really didn’t do any of them with the level of diligence that I would have liked to. In hindsight I can glean powerful pearls of insight so I’m grateful for the lessons learned.
It’s funny how life is lived moving forward but understood looking backward. Happy learning.