It’s a funny thing – we try to act older until we are older, then we try to act younger. However, in the workplace it’s a little different, and probably even a good thing, especially at a young age. You want to act and look older so that you get taken seriously – no one is going to listen to someone in their early 20’s, or trust their judgement. It’s important that we, as young professionals, don’t reveal our inexperience to our clients, co-workers and customers.
Personally, I didn’t really understand this until I was offered my first full time job at RBC. They pulled me aside, informed me of the offer, and then mentioned one thing they would like me to do prior to starting. I assumed it would be some kind of training, reading or mentoring. No, it was none of those. They asked me to get rid of my faux-hawk. That’s right: they felt it would present me as too young and inexperienced, not only to our clients, but also to co-workers.
That is the image side – you want to make sure that you are presenting an image that doesn’t reveal your lack of experience in the marketplace. Get some high quality shoes (it might even be more important than having a high quality suit), and make sure they are always shined. I have actually heard of managers that draw a lot of insight about how serious an up-and-coming employee is based on how well they maintain their shoes. Get a workplace appropriate haircut – sorry if you think you are conforming to the ‘man’ – but until your earn your stripes and develop a reputation, it’s something you are going to have to do. Either that, or go start your own company and set the rules yourself.
The next part to the age paradox is your vocabulary. When I started in NYC (new haircut and all), after about two days I got pulled aside by my new boss. He said to me, “listen, you’re new, and I know there is a lot of pressure, but you need to watch what you say. When you go out with your friends, they are your ‘dudes’, when you are an MD, you can call whoever you want ‘dude’, but you, you don’t call anyone in here ‘dude’. It makes you sound young and naive.”
It hit me – I hadn’t even been thinking about my vocabulary, what I was saying, and how it was impacting the perception others held of me. The words that were really hurting me: ‘dude’, ‘common’, ‘sick’ and ‘yo’. I made a resolution then and there to cut those words out of my vocabulary (which is much harder then it seems). The other thing: it’s very hard to alter your vocabulary while at work only. People try to say to themselves ‘I will talk this way at work, this way at home, and this way with my friends.’ It just doesn’t work like that. Focus on the highest standard, and go for that. Remember, how you say it can mean a lot more than what you say.
Those two lessons were a huge insight for me. At least be aware of the image you are presenting at work. If you are in a professional environment, don’t date yourself with a poor image and vocabulary, you might as well get a nametag that says “Hi, I am 22 and inexperienced, my name is Tom.” Speak professionally, dress professionally (or at least to the top 25% of your coworkers) and you will get treated professionally. Say ‘what’s up dude?’ to your manager on your way in, and you will always be ‘the kid’. The power is in the small things.