Today’s top industry leaders arrived at the top much earlier than those from decades ago. An obvious example: Mark Zuckerberg. At 31, the Facebook CEO (chief executive officer) has a net worth of US$28.5bil (as evaluated in 2014) and has been constantly featured on the most influential/powerful lists around the world.
In comparison, most people, only two decades ago, climbed onto the C-suite career stage in their late 40s or 50s.
Because individuals who grew up in this generation and in the Zuckerberg era still work frequently together (as bosses and staff, business partners, and clients), I was curious to take a look at the relationship dynamics.
As such, I have talked with young leaders of various Malaysian organisations, from the government to for-profit and to start-ups as well as social enterprises, to learn more about their working relationships.
Smart yet humble
Many people believe that youths today have a strong sense of self-entitlement. I have heard of a teacher who had to belanja her students makan after they helped her with a simple task, to large corporations discussing how most students expect to be gifted a solid job right after graduation.
We are constantly surrounded by information on how most youths today expect to receive something without having really earned it yet.
Thus, it comes as no surprise when most people believe that young CEOs, founders and directors are invested with a strong sense of self-entitlement too.
According to Cheryl Yeoh, 32, the CEO of Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Center (MaGIC), trying to prove oneself through knowledge instead of arrogance is a great way of changing this negative perception and gaining the respect of more senior stakeholders and employees.
As one of the youngest CEOs in the GLC (government-linked companies) sector in Malaysia, Yeoh has faced situations in which people are shocked upon finding out her real age.
Besides that, she has also been frequently asked if she feels intimidated by the people she works with because they are often much older than her.
In response, she says:
“I don’t feel self-conscious about my age. One should not feel self-conscious about their age if they are qualified and have the skills for the particular task. I believe that a youth leader would be able to gain the respect of others through maturity and by acting in a grounded and humble way. Some youths talk big but do not know a lot or even, anything at all.”
“When I do not know something, I say, ‘I do not know this but let me find out’. I find that the combination of this humbled attitude and having knowledge in the field, changes a lot of people’s perception for the better,” she shares.
Meanwhile, Warren Chan, 25, the managing director of Social Enterprise Alliance Malaysia believes that being humble and sincere is the key to changing the baby boomer’s negative perception of today’s young business leaders and gaining their support.
Through his experiences in careers that range from corporate, social enterprise to government, he has learned that being humble and asking elders for advice is very important.
“Most of them are happy to share their thoughts and opinions on things with you, especially if you have a good relationship with them.”
“Also, I found that most people are willing to help you in any way they can, especially if you are doing something good for others. All you need to do is be sincere, share about what you are doing and be willing to ask for help when you need it,” he adds.
Listen, be patient
Besides being self-entitled and arrogant, most people often associate the newer generation with being rude, impatient and stubborn.
These are not exactly the traits one would often associate with someone who is a good listener or who has great empathy skills.
Teoh Wee Kiat, 26, co-founder of myBurgerLab, Malaysia, finds that he is sometimes better at connecting with people who are significantly older than him than those who are in his age group.
Teoh, who interacts daily with customers who are often twice his age, believes that the secret to earning the trust and respect of an older person is being a good listener.
“You need to be able to listen to how a person is feeling. It is the unspoken word that matters the most. Sometimes they might be unhappy about something but that is really not the biggest issue that is bothering them. Maybe all they want is to be known that they are heard and to be comforted. Listening skills is something you develop over time but it is really important to know what people are actually saying at the end of the day.”
Young leaders of today
Taking on a leadership position at a company can be quite daunting, especially if most of your team members or stakeholders are significantly older than you.
Understandably, they might not hold the same culture, values or beliefs as you do. Additionally, they might even have a negative perception about what your generation represents.
That said, this does not mean that you should give up on the opportunity to take on a leadership role or stop chasing your dreams to be a leader entirely.
As the young leaders of various organisations in Malaysia have proven, it is possible for someone who is in his/her 20s or 30s to head a department or even an organisation.
Done right, you could also help change some of the negative perceptions most people have about the newer generation as a whole.
Related article: My Hopes For Gen-Y
Eibhlin Lim is a 19-year-old student-entrepreneur who is passionate about solving problems. To share your thoughts with her, or to engage with us on youth development, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment in the box provided. Click here for more Starting Young articles.
Published in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 31 January 2015