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Wise Beyond Your Years: The Challenges of Young Managers

By Amy MacMillan

Your baby face has never been such a liability. Young professionals with "fresh energy and new perspective" are being tapped for management positions, but age-related skepticism is a challenge for these new managers.

"Once you are confident, it starts to show, and people respect you more." -Jenny Phillips

Twenty-five-year-old Wendy Brez, a public affairs manager, grew so tired of coworkers commenting on her age that she started wearing makeup and considered cutting her hair in an effort to look older. "I didn't expect my age to be an issue, and it is," says Brez, who works at Brooklyn Botanic Garden in Brooklyn, New York. "I really thought people would judge you on your merit."

More young people are in management positions these days, and the trend doesn't apply just to dot-coms. It's spilling over into traditional industries as well, says Barbara Kate Repa, vice president of content for, a human resources portal. Young professionals have "fresh energy and new perspective" that companies find valuable at the management level. Age-related skepticism (and even criticism), however, is a challenge that these new managers must face. When age becomes an issue, Repa advises young managers to concentrate on what they were hired to do. But, she warns, "it's a fine line between being confident and being a know-it-all."

Go team, go!
Young managers can make subordinates of all ages feel comfortable by emphasizing teamwork. "Being a manager doesn't mean I make final decisions," says Dennis Esser, 27, coordinator of publications at Northwest Missouri State University. "It means I collaborate with my players to come up with the best solutions and implement them." Esser has been coordinator for three years, manages three people, and oversees the creation of 600 publications, a web site, and a $300,000 annual budget.

Esser's only management training (like so many other young managers) comes from carefully observing other managers. "One of the major things is to be an effective communicator," he advises. He's also aware that a sense of ownership is important for most employees. His hands-off style overseeing his employees has been successful so far. "I really try to let them take the ball with [projects], then I ask for a review session to give me the opportunity to give input and advice," he explains.

Brez started out at Brooklyn Botanic Garden as a public affairs associate in 1999, working under a manager who cultivated her ambitions. When the manager left, Brez was promoted. "I was thrilled, but I was also nervous, because I didn't have much management experience. I had a really good relationship with my director, and I've tried to keep the same atmosphere within my office, and I think I've been successful."

She says being a young manager is harder than you might think. Brez now manages an associate who is three years older, and the two of them are responsible for all of the press and communications about the garden, a nonprofit cultural organization. She shares as much information as possible with her associate and treats her the way Brez was treated by her own former director.

Brez says her youth has been a challenge in her role because it "creates a problem of respect. You know you can do the work, but because you are young, it may take a longer time to prove yourself." Brez has found other methods of building respect, like always showing appreciation to helpful colleagues. "It develops relationships," she says.

Esser quickly discovered that he has to work on a level that people of all ages will relate to, and sometimes that means tailoring his behavior to a situation. For example, he knows that rapid email communication is effective with his younger colleagues, but older colleagues want a more personalized approach.

Room to learn
One of the advantages of being a young manager, Esser believes, is that he is not set in his ways. "I always am looking for ways to improve how our operations are run," he says. Unfortunately, not everyone looks beyond age and gives credit where it's deserved. But Esser acknowledges that earning respect can take a while, especially when you are still wet behind the ears. "Respect is something that you have to earn over time by working hard and showing that you have an interest in improving."

Repa adds that respect can also be more easily earned if new young managers take the time to listen to their employees. "It's a mistake to come in and shake the place up without listening first," she says. "The biggest thing is knowing what makes people tick, so honor that." Repa suggests young managers meet with their employees one-on-one. Sit down and pay attention to what they have to say, as opposed to "riding in like you have to take charge." And if young managers are going to receive formal training, she says, they should first carefully assess their management skills. "I think it would be a mistake to sign up for 19 classes in management without figuring out your strengths and weaknesses."

Repa admits it's not easy to deflect criticism like "you look too young" when you are a young manager. Just concentrate on what you were hired to do," she says. Jenny Phillips, a 23-year-old public relations manager at Greencrest in Columbus, Ohio, does just that. She combats any preconceived notions people have about her youth with confidence and hard work. As she says, "If you have the talent and skills and desire to accomplish your goals, you can, regardless of your age."

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