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Challenges Faced by Young Leaders and Tips to Overcome Them

Daniel Kidd

We are generally used to our managers being older than us; it's pretty much the expected way of things - age and experience brings wisdom, supposedly. But more and more younger people are being thrust into management and leadership roles, creating a challenging dynamic for both the managers and the people they manage.

One such person was Sean Purcell, Head of Learning and Development at Striding Out, who was promoted from lecturer to Curriculum Manager at the age of 22, and then again, at 24, to Acting Area Head.

We decided to ask him about his experience of being a young manager, and share with us any tips he could glean from his experience.

“I became Acting Area Head in 2007 and then a year later I went to head up a department of around 70 staff, with a turnover of over £1.5 million and hundreds of students.

The biggest change for me was that although there was a slight reduction in time spent in the classroom, that free time didn’t get anywhere close to being enough for my additional responsibilities. I now had the responsibility for target setting, team meetings, observing my past peers and their performance, and dealing with discipline of students who, to be honest, weren’t that much younger than me. And not to forget - all the extra paperwork!

However, that is part of becoming a manager and you just knuckle down and do it.

Where my problems began were with long term staff members, some of whom had been there for a very long time, who took almost any change to college policy as a personal slight....and my fault. As a ‘them and us’ situation started to develop, questions about my age, which had never come up before, started to emerge and it began to get personal.

From my point of view it felt like a cheap shot, but it had the opposite of the desired effect as it made me acknowledge the divide and work even harder to fulfil my vision. Eventually in each environment I demonstrated my value and broke down initial barriers and negativity through being consistent, action centred and operating with integrity.

Success as a young leader does depend on the buy-in of your staff - if they feel threatened by your sudden placement or promotion then age can become an easy target. To combat this, I would recommend:

• Taking advantage of leadership training. This helped me to grow a network of peers which were young leaders, and we all supported each other.

• Request a mentor, preferably someone who has been there. I had a particularly outstanding mentor who had been through the hassle of handling difficult staff. It also provides you with a place to admit your own mistakes and discuss what you can do about them.

And what if you find yourself with a manager who is younger than you? What can you do to create a more effective relationship?

Question your own prejudices. Think about when you were younger and being judged on your age. Have you fallen into the same trap?

Consider the cultural references you use. Cultural references can strengthen relationships but if you’re talking about films and TV programmes they’ve never seen then you are effectively talking a different language.

Avoid the temptation to change the way you speak to sound like them. You’ll end up sounding like an idiot.

Think about the values you share. Most of us build connections through shared values. Those connections have nothing to do with what age you are; rather they are more about you as people.

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