A recent news report on American Public Radio’s Marketplace indicated a surge of interest in entrepreneurship among young people. While this is encouraging, it doesn’t make being the youngest person in the room by a decade or more any easier.
As I, a CEO all of 31, walk into a meeting with potential investors, business partners or journalists, I can feel their scrutiny and almost hear the questions they are silently asking: Is this guy even out of school? What does he know about the real world? People can start to age stereotype right away.
But rather than being on the defensive and overcompensating with some brash imitation of Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, I size up those gathered and try to see how youth can be a strength. I try to ascertain who might be an ally and who might need a bit more “selling.”
Most people in business for any length of time recognize that experience plays a significant role in achieving success and the younger a person is, well, the less time this individual has probably had to learn the tricks of the trade. But the world is changing fast and there’s no age requirement for having good ideas.
The most successful people in business are those who identify good ideas early, adapt fast and work with the best. Here are a few of the key steps to feel out and jump-start high-performing relationships and transcend and leveraging “youngest person in the room” status:
1. Charm and disarm. It’s possible to go a long way with a little charm and genuine engagement with the other people in a room. Try starting a conversation by asking questions, making eye contact and smiling at those you’re meeting. I’m a big proponent of starting a meeting with a casual anecdote to break down any tension in the room.
2. Let others speak first. Allowing others to set the tone of a meeting by asking them to “go first” is not only courteous. It’s smart. Getting the other people in the room to talk about their interests can drive what I say next and provides great fodder for follow-up questions.
3. Ask smart questions. Nothing calls more attention to inexperience than asking questions you should clearly know the answers to. But nothing makes an entrepreneur look wiser and more interested than true intellectual curiosity. Probing questions that demonstrate having done the homework will endear a startup founder to prospective partners and open the door to conversation breakthroughs.
4. Be prepared! Before walking into any room, know the players assembled. Do some homework and have clearly defined goals for what should come out of the interaction. I learned early on that when I just “went with the flow” during meetings or when I wasn’t quite prepared enough, I failed to impress others and people left with a neutral or negative impression of me. Be sure to make a strong first impression and demonstrate consistency in all future interactions.
5. Calm down — way down. Often a younger person in a selling role will demonstrate incredible enthusiasm, which is great.
Sometimes that enthusiasm results in rapid-fire delivery and wild gesticulation to convey a point. This may be appropriate for rallying friends at a sporting event. But in a business setting, demonstrate respect to others while earning it, too.
In my earliest pitches to investors, I would often excitedly dominate the conversation by telling them all the wonderful things about my product.
Sometimes that works, but my success rate multiplied when I first calmly listened to investors discuss the market and how they defined success. I was then better able to customize my pitch and deliver a cogent and fluid discourse on my product. The result? Those in the room better understood me and were better able to explain the opportunity to their partners.
6. Find a mentor. The youngest person in the room is certainly at a disadvantage when it comes experience. Mentors can help an entrepreneur avoid a lot of pain, learn from failures and decode the mystifying actions of other businesspeople. Those who are young and in a leadership role have probably had less time working under other leaders and learning from them. Young entrepreneurs may be in their positions precisely because of a personal drive to strike out on their own.
I quickly learned that I was only increasing the difficulty of an already challenging situation by not seeking outside guidance.
Never consider the need for a mentor as a weakness. Instead think of the relationship as a way to upgrade a personal skill set and learn faster.
The quality of a mentor is a reflection on an entrepreneur’s business acumen. When trying to gain the trust of older, more successful people, choosing to work with someone they respect goes a long way toward earning a place at the table.
“Age considers; youth ventures,” said Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore. The best business decisions come from a combination of both activities. In the meantime, those who are young, ambitious and jumping into the ring with people who have rolled with the punches longer, learn fast and remember being the “youngest” doesn’t last forever!
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