How to Lead Young

I got my first “real job” when I was 21.

After Kristen and I got married in June 1997 the big boss at my company called me one day. “Adam, we’re going to post a job today supervising your area. I want you to apply for it because I want to hire you.

A couple weeks later I got the job.

At 21 years old I was put in charge of one of those jobs in a company that’s really important but no one wants. Weird shifts, overseeing three shifts of workers, union issues, very expensive and complicated equipment, constant unrealistic expectations and impossible deadlines, and higher ups who constantly reminded me that it’d be way cheaper to outsource my department to another company. Oh, and just for fun, this little mini-department had just been moved offsite to a warehouse where we were hated.

Looking at the facts it was a no-win situation. I was a new manager, in charge of very expensive equipment, doing a very important job for the company, but put on an island and given a hodgepodge team of full-time, long-term employees in their 40s and temporary workers… many of whom had felony convictions and never had a “real job.”

I never saw it as a no-win situation because I had one thing in my corner… a boss who really believed in me. She didn’t hire me to be lead to the slaughter. She hired me because together we were going to kick some butt.

My charge was pretty direct:

  • Meet or beat every deadline.
  • Create a team that believes in itself.
  • Figure out how to do this cheaper than outsourcing.

Over the next five years that’s exactly what I did. We never missed a deadline, we created the proverbial “mail room” for the company where a crew of temps and union employees became family, and every year I was there we lowered the cost-per-item produced.

But, in all honesty, this little feat only happened because I had a boss who invested in me. I believed it was possible because she believed in me. She didn’t just hire me and stick me in no man’s land in that warehouse. She continually invested in me and taught me the right things to do.

And most relevant for you? She taught me how to lead young. The things she taught me about being a young leader were directly transferable to my next life as the young leader on a church staff. So I wanted to pass them along.

5 Things Every Young Leader Can Do to Earn Respect

  1. Be Prepared – Each week we had a weekly staff meeting. Like a lot of organizations, these meetings were predictable, we were going to go around the conference table and each person was going to give a brief report on their area. I was surprised how many people got fired as the result of performing poorly in the meeting. They came unprepared, they didn’t have the right information, they didn’t have answers, they didn’t offer solutions for the rest of the team– they thought it was casual because we served coffee and donuts.  Before my very first staff meeting I was pulled aside and told the truth: This might seem casual and even friendly sometimes. But don’t ever show up to this meeting unprepared. Sometimes you’ll get away with sharing very little info, but other times the pressure will get applied. Always be prepared. Never show up without all the information you need.
  2. Be on Time – Living in Chicago, it would have been easy to be late a lot. (Traffic is always an issue.) I saw managers come and go in my time and one of the big reasons was simply that they couldn’t manage to control their time. They were late for meetings, they were late for work, and they fostered this expectation that they wouldn’t be on time. The flip side is that when you are young you want to establish that you are dependable. Being consistently 15-20 minutes early told older managers I valued their time enough to be on time. We live in a culture who expects young adults to be lazy, disorganized, and otherwise undependable. Get on the other side of that and you’re winning hearts.
  3. Dress Right – I worked in a warehouse. A dusty, hot, place where I might go a week between seeing someone from the main office. But I learned the value of dressing right. As the years of success built it became more and more normal that my little area became part of the tour that the people wearing suits showed off to visiting company presidents. Our success story became part of the success story for the whole company. I can’t tell you how important it was to be dressed appropriately so that when I got a call that the “big bosses” were coming to tour our facility or I needed to go make a presentation at the headquarters, that I was ready. It might seem silly, but one thing I was queued into early was that it was important to have a nice watch and a nice pair of shoes. I might have left for work at 3:45 AM, I might have had a lot of laughs with my team, but I also rocked those uncomfortable dress shoes and that gold watch day in and day out.
  4. Don’t Make Excuses When You Fail – Mistakes will happen. Your team will fail. You will not always meet every last expectation. I’ll never forget seeing a high level boss catching a co-worker in a lie during one of those staff meetings over a mistake in her area. She was trying to cover for someone and got called out on it like a shark on a baby seal. Reduced to tears by the embarrassment, credibility lost, she transferred to another area of the company. I learned right away that having “sober judgement” about failures, being clear with the facts, holding the people at fault accountable, and owning your own mistakes grows respect and credibility. Those who tried to cover things up or sugar coat their failures… they didn’t survive when their blood was in the water. A failure is a test of character, nothing more and nothing less. Own it, deal with it, and move on.
  5. Don’t Kiss Butt – One of the biggest mistakes I see young leaders make is kissing butt. It’s one thing to kiss a ring… there are a lot of rings to be kissed as a young leader… but it’s another thing to kiss someone’s butt. Kissing butt can get you attention. But it’s the wrong kind of attention from the wrong kind of leader. If you want to establish respect in an organization you’ll let your results speak for you. If you’re resorting to kissing up to get what you want, your boss already knows you aren’t a leader… you’re a butt kisser. That boss owns you and you’ll never lead. Worse yet, your coworkers see it and respect you less and less as the butt kissing goes on.

What advice do you have for young leaders in an organization?






One response to “How to Lead Young”

  1. Andrea Avatar

    This is good advice for success at any age.

Leave a Reply