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Leadership Steps for young leaders to establish credibility in the workplace

Chris Catliff.

Paul Grdina Photography 2016/BlueShore Financial

Chris Catliff is president and chief executive officer of BlueShore Financial credit union in Vancouver.

From artificial intelligence to climate change, our world is shaking up traditional business models. As each industry lines up for its “Uber moment” – its turn to be swept away by the digital revolution – grizzled CEOs are looking for problem solvers from the up-and-coming generation.

Successful young leaders embrace change and challenge the status quo, providing new thinking vital for digital innovation. Although these millennials have several advantages over their baby boomer colleagues, they face unique challenges.

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A Harvard Business Review study compared the perception of younger managers with that of their retiring counterparts, and the recurring theme was lack of trust. Colleagues were not fully on board with the ideas and opinions of younger managers, often questioning their judgment and asking themselves, “Is this kid serious?”

For young leaders, earning credibility with their bosses and co-workers is their first job. Credibility and trust are often mistaken for likeability, but they are very different things.

Remember, people will not judge you by your intentions but by your behaviours and results. My definition of trust is the routine accomplishment of doing what you said you were going to do in the way you promised. Trust, therefore, can be understood as a balance of character and competence.

Consistency is what builds trust, and to shape that consistency, young leaders must be precise, realistic and timely in what they promise to deliver. Then they need to deliver it.

Here are three ways young leaders can build credibility in the workplace.

1. Solve for corner-office issues and demonstrate broader accountability

Young leaders inspire when they drive workplace improvements, pushing new standards in efficiency and productivity. A common pitfall, however, lies in how they frame the discussion to tenured incumbents. Anyone can come forward with a problem to be fixed; might as well put it in the suggestion box. Rare is someone who presents a fully analyzed problem with a clearly mapped out solution.

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Rarer still are solutions for the biggest problems of their boss’s boss. Executives have too many projects on the corner of their desk. Often, in the absence of analysis, they must go with their gut. You could be that analyst if you’ve built trust. Tell bosses directly where you question their assumptions. Be diplomatic but not deferential or obsequious.

It is vital to make the threat of a problem both graphic and visceral but also to offer potential solutions to overcome it based on people and budget. Leaders not only articulate the threat but have a specific plan to address it.

2. Tackle unfounded opposition directly

In any conflict, you can choose from among four approaches: avoid, give in, collaborate to build consensus, or confront. If there must be a confrontation, it is best done in a graceful, diplomatic and firm way. At other times an even more stern approach is needed.

Young leaders often face contemptuous opposition despite doing all the right things. Dealing head on with patronizers and naysayers is most effective. Opposition toward good ideas and innovation based on biased mindsets is not healthy for the business, or for you as a leader. Letting such behaviours slide can sabotage your plan. In the end, you create the reality around you. Deal with it head on and stamp it out.

3. Align your values with the company’s

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You cannot project credibility if your values are not aligned with those of the business. You must know who and what you believe in and ensure this is in line with the company you choose to work for. Whether it be an idea, a project, product or service, if you don’t believe in it, selling it simply won’t work. Your uneasiness will manifest in a lack of credibility.

Almost 20 years ago, I was a young, freshly minted CEO joining an established corporate culture at a traditional credit union I believed needed a strategic revamp. I had the unenviable task of telling the board of directors (which included the former CEO) that the business was faltering. Having been warned about the risk of undertaking a 180-degree shift in strategy, I focused first on building up my credibility. I believed in my vision, attracted other believers – people who wanted to innovate – and painted a compelling vision of what the business could be.

4. Demonstrate that you learn from your mistakes

What happens if a young leader makes a big mistake that threatens their credibility? It may feel like bouncing back is impossible, but simply being honest, identifying and executing a solution and learning from it can go a long way to demonstrating accountability and resilience.

When I first started out, I recall losing $20,000 on a bad loan, but when I offered my resignation, my CEO said, “Are you kidding? I see that $20,000 as an investment toward your personal and professional development. … No way.” Young leaders should strive for progress, not perfection.

Leadership is a three-step process: You must inspire in your vision for change, you must transform something of value, and most importantly, you must deliver. Do these three and you will soon be mentoring others from the corner office. Then you can help young leaders establish their own credibility, a most fulfilling endeavour indeed.

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