In many ways, I’m what you might call a classic overachiever: Driven, ambitious, eager to succeed, and acutely aware that the clock is always ticking. In my case, that dogged determination paid off early on, landing me on splashy lists like Forbes’ 30 Under 30, but it’s only one side of the coin. Being a young leader can also be lonely and unnerving, full of imposter syndrome and second-guessing. Now that I’m in my mid-thirties and a bit more settled in my career, I finally feel comfortable in my skin and role as an executive. Here are a few things I’ve learned about coming into your own as a young person in leadership.
Being a young leader can also be lonely and unnerving, full of imposter syndrome and second-guessing.
Articles on leadership tend to be full of vague suggestions like “act with confidence!” But what does that actually look like in your day-to-day work? For me, confidence is really about decisiveness–the ability to trust your instincts, commit to your choices, and stand by them under pressure. In positions of power, waffling is never good. People want clear direction and to feel that you’re with them in the weeds. This isn’t to say that you can’t change your mind; part of being a leader is taking the fall if something goes wrong and being willing to approach the same problem from a new angle. But specific, assertive direction is key. It’s like being a coach: Yes, you’re always strategizing plays, but the calls themselves have to be clear.
Put Your Team First
In your twenties, work can feel cutthroat and territorial; there are only so many opportunities to succeed and stand out. But as we rise the ranks, our perspective needs to shift away from narrow self-interest and toward meaningful collaboration. Great leadership isn’t just about performance or me-me-me. It’s about teamwork, humility, openness, and respect.
Don’t Be Precious About Projects
When you’ve built something from the ground up, it’s natural to be protective of it. We’re taught that ownership is the surest path to promotion. But the reality is that most projects get passed off. Try not to view this as a blow to your ego. At the end of the day, you can’t do everything, and if the project is successful enough to be assigned to a suitable owner–someone who can help it evolve, grow, and run–that means you’ve done a good job. And now, you’re free to focus on the next big win.
As we rise the ranks, our perspective needs to shift away from narrow self-interest and toward meaningful collaboration.
Be Open to Changing Your Leadership Style
I used to be very, very hard-headed. My style was aggressive, loud, and combative because that was the tone of the environment I learned in. Conflict resolutions were always tense. It wasn’t until I moved to a company that insisted upon a different approach that I finally had to surrender my methods.
This makes it sound easy or fast, and it most certainly was not. It was hard to rewire ten years of unhealthy conflict strategies and change the way I communicate. The key was constructive critical feedback, things like, “We love the directness, but you’ve got to soften your delivery.” Our CEO is an incredibly perceptive leader; he sees things in people that they can’t see in themselves. Sometimes that feedback is hard to hear simply because you feel so seen. But it's also the biggest gift.
Embrace the Unknown
I purposefully seek out roles that feel new and unpredictable, where I can build something special and help shape the future. But starting over, or starting something from scratch, can be isolating and scary. Trust your gut. When you do start that new venture, approach it with a clean slate. It’s so tempting to bring old playbooks into new jobs, especially if you feel a little unmoored. But I’ve found it’s healthy to start fresh. The most rewarding career moves are never apples-to-apples.
Resist the Urge to Micromanage (In Other Words: Trust Your Team)
As I’ve gotten more comfortable in leadership positions, I’ve found that I talk less. I try to let others form their own opinions about what we should be doing, rather than me telling them. It’s my job to guide and empower that discussion. I reject the idea that executives should have all the answers. If you’ve hired specialists, they should probably know more about their focus area than you. Believe in their capabilities and lean on them for their expertise. They’ll surprise you.
When you do start that new venture, approach it with a clean slate. It’s so tempting to bring old playbooks into new jobs, especially if you feel a little unmoored.
About Melissa Rosenthal:
Melissa is an award winning marketing executive and the Chief Creative Officer at ClickUp, focused on making the world more productive through best in class SaaS marketing! Previously Melissa was the CRO/ Executive Vice President at Cheddar, a live video media company at the intersection of business news and culture. For her brand work, she was named to Forbes' 30 Under 30, Business Insider’s 30 Most Creative People Under 30 and as one of Digiday's "Changemakers." Prior to Cheddar, she led BuzzFeed's Global Creative Team. Joining the staff in 2010, Rosenthal was a key contributor to the creation and early success of BuzzFeed's branded content native advertising model.