Startups and first-time CEOs are natural partners. And often, those first-time CEOs are young.
A young executive’s energy, coupled with enhanced leadership skills, can achieve astounding results.
The average private-sector entrepreneur in an S&P 500 company is 53 – significantly older than many CEOs of startups funded by venture capital. In general, a long track record of successfully completed projects correlates with success as an entrepreneur, but in today’s world of startups, business growth doesn’t necessarily happen in a stepwise or predictable fashion. As a result, companies may end up with CEOs who are quite young.
The energy and enthusiasm that a young CEO may bring to a startup can be a real advantage due to startups’ unpredictability and the need for agility. But young executives face some key challenges too. Here are five of them.
1. Fear of Vulnerability
Exuding confidence is important for any executive, and many younger executives focus on projecting confidence at the expense of vulnerability. Vulnerability is seen by some as weakness, but as I discuss in my book The Intelligent Leader, it is anything but.
The executive who knows they aren’t smart enough to figure out everything along the way and who embraces vulnerability is on the right track. Listening to multiple points of view and being honest about not knowing everything empowers others to contribute their expertise and experience. And businesses are better off for it.
2. Lack of a Mentor
An executive who is closer in age to an entry-level employee than to the typical CEO may arrive at the top of the corporate ladder quickly, having never had a mentor. The value of mentors has long been recognized. Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin actually hired executive chair Eric Schmidt to act as an advisor. This type of advisor can take the lead on activities like running the board of directors while shepherding young executives through the process of becoming strong leaders.
3. Narrow Base of Experience
Executives who are too young to have had a range of work experiences may bring a narrow, incomplete point of view to the job. While there is no substitute for time and hands-on experience in running a company, there are things these young executives can do to expand their viewpoint.
Joining the board of a local civic, charitable, or corporate organization can be a great way for young executives to broaden their perspective.
For example, joining the board of one or two other organizations (whether in the same or a different sector) can enlarge a young executive’s perspective and give them valuable firsthand knowledge about facing the challenges executives typically face.
4. Communication Difficulties
Communication skills are vital to a successful executive. But the promising young professional who zooms to the top of the organizational chart may be used to communicating only within a specific “silo.” Being at the top means communicating effectively across the organization, not just with a select few colleagues. Improving communication skills should be at the top of every young executive’s priority list.
5. Insufficient Self-Awareness
Self-awareness increases naturally as someone methodically scales the corporate ladder. Each level offers lessons on where a leader’s blind spots are and how to recognize them. A very young executive, however, may not have enough professional experience to have identified and addressed such blind spots in their self-awareness, and the consequences for their lack of self-awareness can be unfortunate.
Executive Coaching and the Young Executive
Each of these challenges can be overcome with the help of a competent executive coach. Executive coaches tackle problems like fear of vulnerability and inadequate communication skills regularly. Though many people think of executive coaching as something for older leaders, it can be amazingly effective with younger ones.
Many young leaders are eager to learn, and executive coaching offers a marvelous opportunity for them to not only learn leadership skills but to practice them until they become ingrained and natural. The result is an executive with greater emotional intelligence who is more inclined to listen to all voices and let others contribute with their unique skills and talents.
The energy of the young executive can be a glorious thing. And when it is matched with great communication skills, strong self-awareness, and a willingness to embrace vulnerability, the result can be impressive business gains. If you’re interested in learning more about the key components of leadership – whatever your age – I invite you to check out my books.