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Too young to lead?

A lesser spoken or written bias, yet one that is increasingly becoming a challenge, is the bias of age. Especially age coming in the way of progress for relatively younger, less experienced employees and leaders. As a young person myself, I have experienced this multiple times. A lot of us term it as a ‘value grey hair syndrome.’

As is customary, one tends to do a quick Google search to get a sense of whether there has been any notable research done in this area. While I did find some interesting data on older age being a competitive disadvantage to organizations (recent HBR research for Deloitte), I did not come across as much research on younger age bias.

The question gnawing at me was: “Is it just me who’s experienced this?

Should I be looking to change something?”

Questions such as these led to me putting a survey out, which has now been taken by about a 100 people.* The survey was sent as a link to working professionals across diverse industries and all levels of leadership — i.e. first time leaders to senior, experienced leaders.

Here are 3 highlights of the results -

1. 80% respondents said “Yes, I have experienced age-related bias.”

2. Of the 80%, 10% are men and 90% women.

3. 5% of the 90% of women who said YES gave over qualification as the reason and the rest said “I was too young or had fewer years of experience.”

Here’s what some women who responded YES had to say:

“In my previous role, I was younger [than] people who were a part of the organization so I wasn’t given an opportunity to contribute, although I did have solutions in my mind.”

“In [some] organizations with a long-standing history and tradition, loyalty and ‘grey hair’ matter more than competence at senior leadership levels.”

“My leader/manager was misogynistic.” (5 comments though this wasn’t an option to pick from)

“Even though I could perform equal or better than my peers, I was discounted in strategic meetings.”

Despite this being a quick time span survey with only a few questions, the data appears to provide direction to my questions.

Before I move further, let me definitively say that, particularly in respect of domain expertise and business acumen, experience does count. But, it is undeniable that the younger demographic is opting for accelerated career growth under challenging experiences in a relatively short period of time vis-à-vis traditional career paths. They do not just aspire, but are willing to invest in their development.

The age/experience bias that this piece is about is one where the individual does have the competence and right attitude, but does not make the cut in terms of years of experience.

So here are a couple of my personal experiences:

A senior leader in a firm in the services business heard about my experience/work and thoughts about partnering with the organization. After hearing me out, the only response was “That sounds great. However, a lot of our work is with Senior Leaders.” I reflected on this. Perhaps, there was some merit in what he said? Maybe I do lack the experience to work with senior (i.e. older & more experienced) leaders? So I sent the person I spoke to a concept note on creating a replicable model to coach young leaders. Regrettably, there hasn’t been a revert.

Two questions –

  • Does the lack of a revert say something about the underlying implicit bias?

  • Could similar ideas, from a more ‘experienced person’ (perhaps male) would have elicited a reaction?

A young start-up leader said to me, “I think it would be great to partner with you as one of the coaches for people in our network. However, like I mentioned most of our coaches only come with 20–25 years of experience.”

The rationale for these examples is merely to illustrate the point and is not in any way, shape or form a judgment.

Here’s another example: A review of 25 job postings on LinkedIn revealed “minimum x number of years of experience in ….” as a common thread across. Indeed, experience matters. What is equally important too is the nature and type of experience. Just 2 of the 25 postings used such a profile description.

So what is the best way for the younger and perhaps less experienced people to navigate situations where they might experience bias and/or discrimination?

Here’s the ABCD of managing age bias:

Acquire depth of knowledge and relevant challenging experience early: Remember, it can only be termed as a ‘bias’ if, as a young person, you have the willingness, knowledge, and understanding of the role/project and are still not considered for it. So keep learning, innovate, and focus on adding value/contribution to larger goals.

2. Balance assertiveness with respect & humility — When we step into the shoes of someone who has assiduously worked to achieve leadership success, it isn’t unnatural for them to have discomfort with relatively lesser experience. We do have a lot to learn from their experience, which is possible only if we respect them and are open to learning. Having said that, one’s own belief in self and assertiveness in articulating messages is imperative to move forward. Assertiveness without respect & humility may come across as arrogance. Respect & humility without assertiveness could make one appear diffident.

3. Careful: Your own self-image or internalized prejudice could come in the way: An internalized bias is when a person believes that the stereotypes that exist are true about themselves. In her book Invisible Women, Caroline Perez has identified multiple situations where women hold the same biases about themselves and other women as men do. This could possibly be true for age and experience too, especially given that women seem to experience the age bias more commonly.

4. Discuss the ‘elephant in the room’: The elephant in the room being that the individual you are interacting with is probably thinking “he or she is too young.” While the right action and performance matters, sometimes, it may be useful to speak about how you are young but have the capability and confidence. This is something I’ve begun to do in my recent conversations. It helps on two levels — first, to let go of inhibitions or ‘nervousness’ about being ‘young’ ; second — it indicates authenticity. Authenticity combined with expertise and the right attitude help build trust…and building trust is key to being able to succeed in situations where you may not meet the ‘minimum experience requirement.’

Finally, know that there are many people who value your work, look out for you and are happy to endorse you irrespective of age and experience. I am fortunate to have worked with encouraging leaders and colleagues who have helped me to keep going despite the obstacles.

Like other forms of bias, age bias is a reality at the workplace and has significant implications on employees and organizational performance. From our initial research, it appears that both organizations and employees need to make mindset shifts and take relevant action to dilute the impact of this bias.

*Survey demographics

Number of people — 100

Gender split — 75 women, 25 men, transgender/chose not to specify — none

Location — 90% of respondents are Indians who currently live in India

Link to quoted research —

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