Youthful genes may fare well for Hollywood careers, but in the corporate world, this blessing can cost job offers and promotions—especially if you are aiming for the executive suite.
I’ve experienced it myself. From being covertly dissected to blatantly asked my age, I’ve become subject to a person’s expressive reaction and 180-degree turnaround after learning the truth.
But I’m not the only one. Over the last several months, I’ve noticed an alarming increase in similar circumstances among experiential MBA candidates (mostly women) at Wake Forest University Charlotte Center. Contrary to what most potential employers believe, these are not kids. Although their practical experience and commitment to completing one of the most rigorous programs in the nation should supersede those youthful-looking genes, several of them are struggling with the “Fountain of Youth” challenge.
Initially, it is no secret that most people judge one another on perception, rather than ability. Although there are personal upsides to feeling like Benjamin Button, when it comes to career growth, talent isn’t enough. The face must fit as well.
Young or old, you have the right to challenge age-related bias. However, a violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) is difficult to prove when you look 35 rather than 45. Yet, many employers apply stereotypes toward youthful-looking candidates because they believe teams or clients won’t respect young managers or that they lack practical experience.
This very real diversity problem across the executive suite is raising analysts’ eyebrows. Ever since the roll out of the Dodd-Frank Act, investors are taking a keen interest in the diversity and age of company leaders. Although there is progress, it’s slow. A recent SEC report found an age decrease of only three years among Fortune 100 company board members and only three percent are female.
So, how can a person look older when the fountain of youth hoses you every time? Here are five youth-busting strategies that will help you move from kiddie clubhouse to the executive suite.
- Dress for leadership.
High quality, conservative suits or everyday attire that exemplify classic style are musts, but for heaven’s sake this doesn’t mean you need to dress like a frump. Women can accessorize with bolder, yet classic jewelry and opt for thinner heeled pumps that convey sophistication. Ladies, there is also a connection between makeup and perceived competence. Use darker shades and contour your eyes. Men may find it a little easier to add a few years to their appearance with a beard.
- Answer with experience; not age.
Carving your New Path to the C-Suite means you must stop thinking like your functional colleagues and start strategizing and communicating like a thought leader with visionary solutions. You aren’t seasoned; you are accomplished, so provide substantive examples how you’ve contributed to a company’s ROI. Your ability to influence, see the big picture, and strategize through a value-driven lens are leadership indicators that help employers get the results they want.
- Leverage your network.
Most people network their way to senior-level roles. Who you surround yourself with is not only important, but those strong alliances help build street cred.
During the interview, mention the names of top influencers that are familiar with your work. If these mentors and alliances trust you, then chances are the new employer will also trust you.
Nobody gets to the top on their own. Don’t be afraid to ask the people you admire and respect for help. Most of the time, people helped them, and you may be surprised by their willingness to pay it forward.
- Drop your guard.
Political correctness can be a double-edged sword. Managing conflict and addressing issues head-on will demonstrate your leadership capabilities.
Let’s face it. If you wish to be part of an executive team, you can’t be overly sensitive or as combative as Rosie O’Donnell. Not everyone has an agenda. Many times, people are not intentionally being difficult or nosy, but simply trying to find a common ground to build upon. Instead of being offended, realize that your interpretation may not be the same as truth.
Bring up the age issue on your own. When discussing your leadership achievements, acknowledge your youthful appearance by describing the strategies you adopted to overcome preconceived notions, gain a group’s trust, and achieve business priorities.
- Clever deflection.
Whether innocent or deceptive in nature, illegal interview questions shouldn’t be countered with confrontation. Rather, you’re better off using clever deflection and redirection tactics.
To pinpoint age, an interviewer may ask the ages of your children or press for a graduation year. Try redirecting the conversation with non-defensive replies such as: “I graduated in the 1980s. What age demographic is the company targeting?”, or “Given the scope of the role, my experience makes me a low-risk hire with credibility, good instincts, and the talent to help you achieve your numbers.”
Remember, communication is the epicenter of conflict resolution. Using a non-combative tone—and even a little humor—is not only powerful, but it shows you can roll with the punches.
Albert Einstein said, “Common sense is the collection of shared prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” Yes, it stinks. But if perception is deception, then mastering the above techniques may not only raise you to the next level, but they will encourage your audience to cut through illusions in order to see the truth.