A reader recently sent me a lengthy e-mail raising questions dealing with age and organizational culture. Here’s the essence of it:
"My daughter is a youthful 29 years old (and short which doesn’t help!) working in the financial services industry. Over the past four years she has done very well with a few promotions. Her biggest complaint is that no one takes her seriously or listens to her and she lacks the authority she needs to get the work done.
The people she manages are much older than she is and seem to harbor some resentment at her position. She is a very hard worker (which is why she has been promoted), caring, with a good sense of humor, and has worked hard to win these people over. She feels frequently undermined by those she must deal with both directly and indirectly in other departments. She feels strongly that the age differential and her rapid rise and the conservative culture are barriers to her success in this position.
Jim, have you dealt with these types of issues in any of your previous work? Do you have any words of wisdom for her?"
I have to declare my bias in the age discussion. I was an assistant manager at age 17, a commissioned sales person at 18, sales manager at 19, and a sales trainer at 20. I had a baby face and was constantly greeted with "you’re so young" – like it was news to me! – when meeting customers and others for the first time. At 24 I began my writing, training, and consulting career and become a paid professional speaker addressing CEOs and senior professionals of major companies before age 30. These experiences shaped my perspective that "barriers" or "handicaps" like age or appearance (such as height) are largely self-created.
Delivering results, meeting needs, showing competence, dependability, friendliness, positivity, and such, rapidly divert attention from "handicaps." How your daughter sees and accepts herself is a critical lens through which others see her. If she sees herself as young, resented, short, etc., she sets herself up to look for evidence that others see that in her too. A negative comment, lack of cooperation, competition, or signs of jealousy can be internalized as aimed at her because of her "handicap." She needs to learn how to externalize them to realize that they say more about the other person’s issues and view of the world than about her.
Politics in a big organization can be very challenging to negotiate. One key is to groom a mentor or two to help her. She needs to actively seek out someone with more experience to help her navigate the organization.
Many people resent office politics. But whenever you get a few people or more together every day in one place, decisions and interactions are heavily tinged by trust levels, credibility, relationships, and other emotional factors. Recognizing, controlling our own, and influencing the emotions of others are key skills.
Martin Seligman has an excellent web site dealing with Positive Psychology. She should spend some time there and complete some of the assessment tools. His book, Authentic Happiness is outstanding. Our kids in their 20s have found it very helpful. Another excellent and extremely useful book is Primal Leadership dealing with Emotional Intelligence. Go to http://www.eiconsortium.org/bookstore.htm and scroll down toward the bottom of the page. With just a bit of bias (!), I’d also recommend my own latest book, Growing @ the Speed of Change for its focus on perceptions, self-leadership, and ongoing personal growth.