If you want to be a CEO at a tender age, you can try to go the Mark Zuckerberg route and invent some world-changing innovation. But most ambitious young folks gunning for the top job aren’t in that position. They’re hoping to lean on their growing business skills rather than an innovation lightning strike to reach the C-suite.
So what’s the right approach for this group? How can you spin ambition and business savvy into incredibly rapid career advancement? The UK’s Guardian newspaper recently spoke to three CEOs who landed in executive roles before their 30th birthdays to solicit some advice. Among the top takeaways from the conversations:
1. Find the right environment
Just as you can’t get stronger at the gym if you’re not allowed to push yourself with bigger weights, you’ll never build up your business skills if you go to work at the type of company that balks at giving an untested young person real, substantive responsibility. If you’re looking to hone your leadership potential quickly, move on fast from any environment where you’re not learning continuously.
“Part of my success is down to being in an environment where I was allowed to excel. I worked with people who didn’t discriminate against me because of my age, which would have been very easy to do,” Danny Waters, who became CEO of Enterprise Finance at age 29, told the Guardian.
Jeremy Boudinet, director of marketing for startup Ambition, hasn’t quite reached the top job yet, but he offered similar career advice: “You don’t have to be passionate about the product you are selling. You don’t have to be in the most glamorous industry. You don’t have to work for the company with the best ‘brand’ identity or reputation in your chosen field. Few things are as valuable as going and working for somebody that is going to want to teach you anything and everything they know.”
2. Don’t let your age psyche you out
If you want others not to view your age as an issue, that’s something you’re going to have to model in your own behavior, Jonathan Samuels, who took on the role of CEO at 28, explained.
“You have to be absolutely comfortable with managing people who are older than you. Working with colleagues who are more experienced than you should be seen as a positive. But you do need to assert authority to show that you are actually in charge. As soon as that is understood, you will be respected,” he said. “There will be times during negotiations with other parties when people will be surprised by your age. In my experience, they will get over that very quickly when they realize you know what you are talking about. Age just becomes a side issue.”
3. Stop waiting for the perfect opportunity
When you’re young, you lack experience, and therefore it can be difficult to judge whether you’ve really found the right environment for you. Maybe there’s another, better opportunity out there somewhere, you constantly wonder. But while you should never settle for a mediocre situation (see tip one above), at some point you also have to stop searching for greener grass and settle into the hard work you have at hand.
“The reality is, you need to just crack on and get out there. It doesn’t matter what you do, you need to just do it well,” Dan Hooper, director and co-founder of Piccadilly Group, insisted.
CEOs, what advice would you offer young people gunning to reach the top job ASAP?