Masahiro Sakashita built a fabulous track record while working for Prologis in Japan, and he was a natural choice to lead Nippon Prologis REIT, the company we took public there in 2012. There was just one problem: Sakashita was in his early 50s, which was relatively young for a leader of a public company in a culture that places a high value on seniority and the wisdom that comes with age.
Sakashita, or Matt, as we called him, faced the same sorts of challenges more and more leaders around the world face – he had to win over the peers and subordinates who questioned his role as a leader.
There’s never been a time in history when age wasn’t a barrier to leadership, but the rising influence of millennials is creating a shift. Joann Lublin, writing earlier this year for The Wall Street Journal, pointed out that, “Demand for young executives is growing, especially in areas like digital commerce and artificial intelligence … As a result, more workers find themselves reporting to younger bosses.”
Surveys by CareerBuilder.com, according to Lublin, indicate nearly four in 10 U.S. employees worked for younger managers in 2014, up from 31 percent in 2010. Many of these executives are in their 20s and 30s, so they don’t have nearly as much experience as Matt had when he was appointed executive director at Nippon Prologis REIT. But they can learn from the approach he took and the approach I’ve seen in other successful leaders in similar positions by practicing these four key concepts:
Find Common Ground
The title of “leader” never puts us in the center of the universe, but it’s especially important to avoid that trap as a young leader. The temptation is to focus on what matters most to you, but the direct route to that goal often isn’t the best route. Find out what matters to your subordinates and peers, and then turn that into common ground. Be willing to leave your comfort zone to learn about their lives and their hobbies and their interests, even if those things aren’t all that interesting to you. By establishing an interest in and a commitment to the people you lead, you’ll develop the trust and loyalty you need for buy-in of your agenda.
Earning a position of leadership is a big deal, but if pride in that accomplishment comes across as arrogance, then followers quickly become resentful and peers become dismissive. Allow your humility and gratitude for your new responsibility to shine a light on your respect for the job and the people you are serving. You don’t need to prove yourself to be the best; you just need to prove yourself to be the most worthy.
Listen, Learn, and Affirm
No matter how smart you are, experience matters in everything you do. By listening to others – those you work with and those who work for you – you can learn from their experiences and strengthen your strategies and skillsets. Listening to others and affirming what you’ve learned also provides evidence that you value their opinions and that you aren’t leading out of arrogance, which, of course, strengthens your bonds of trust.
Value Clarity but not Control
Efforts to be collaborative and inclusive often work better in theory than in practice because they fail to account for a critical reality: Leaders must lead. The people who report to you, regardless of their age, want direction. They want you to set the vision and make it crystal clear where they need to go and when they need to get there. Then they want the freedom and respect to do their jobs in the best ways possible. So be decisive without being controlling.
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