Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Beware the 'Gray Hair Effect'

posted by Andy Leff
Last word on my recent Facebook and follow-up posts, I promise. The soapbox has one more good rant in it ...

‘Young’ does not equal ‘stupid.’ Yet many people believe it does. I call this phenomenon the Gray Hair Effect, a.k.a. ageism. Or in this case, youngism. Because I’m not talking about discrimination toward senior citizens. I’m talking about discrimination toward younger business people.

I’m 25. I have a start-up venture to my name. I’ve worked as a partner in my family investment firm. Usually before I meet with someone, I call them, introduce myself, shoot the breeze, discuss the agenda -- anything to make the meeting warmer and more productive later.

Then I show up. Here, the Gray Hair Effect comes into play. The same person I just spoke to on the phone will ask, “Hey, where’s your boss, Andy? You know, that guy I talked to on the phone?”

And God forbid I arrive with an older partner. Then most conversation is directed toward them -- even if I’m the one asking the questions. It’s like a bizarre, late-in-life interpretation of ‘children should be seen and not heard’.

I recognize that most people who hold power positions in companies tend to be older. After all, it often takes time, education, and experience to reach positions with greater responsibility.

What I don’t understand is their negative attitude toward younger businesspeople. Why should anybody care how old you are when dealing with business? The last time I checked, some of the most successful people in the world started off young, particularly in the Web 2.0 world.

Some fast facts:

* Michael Dell started his computer company in his dorm room at University of Texas at Austin. He was 19. He is now a billionaire.

* Sergey Brin and Larry Page at Google started a search engine when they were in their mid-twenties. They are now two of the richest people in the world.

* Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim started YouTube -- that’s right -- in their twenties.

* Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe were in their twenties when they founded MySpace.

* Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was 19 -- another dorm-room upstart.

* Kevin Rose of was on the cover of BusinessWeek. He’s now 30.

Let’s face it: Age is no longer a prerequisite for success. Good ideas are good ideas, regardless of time spent on the planet. The face of business is changing, and it counts fewer wrinkles.

Now I want to hand the mic over to you. Young business people: Have you faced age discrimination in the business world, from peers or from older workers? If so, how have you responded to it? What lessons have you learned?

Older business people: Same questions! Have you faced age discrimination from peers or younger workers? Your responses? Lessons learned?

Go. Type. Respond. In the meantime, here are some tips I follow to combat the Gray Hair Effect in my own life: (Though I think this is sound advice for any age group.)

1. Be a domain expert. Know what you’re talking about. Do as much research as you can on the topic you’re meeting about, especially if you’re pitching a business idea. The more facts and figures your grasp, the more respect you will command in a business situation.

2. Practice your presentation. Never go into a meeting cold. And please, don’t open with a cheesy joke. This shows lack of confidence and originality in the presenter.

3. Observe your body language and the audience’s body language. When someone is speaking to you, lean in towards them to show your interest. Conversely, avoid sitting back in the chair with crossed arms -- an indicator of insecurity and disinterest.

4. Use your hands when speaking. Count ideas on your fingers. Point to people you connect with. Bang your hand on the table to emphasize a strong point. Scan the crowd, and make eye contact with everyone in the room. And don’t wring your hands -- that screams nerves.

5. Get excited! Raise your voice when you are making a strong point about your product. Emphasize ideas that catch the attention and imagination of your audience. If you’re not engaged in your own work, how can you expect anyone else to be?

6. Ask questions. This counts even in lousy meetings. You never know what tidbit of info might be useful later. Keep your ears open, and write everything down.

7. Don’t burn bridges. Swallow your pride when necessary, however unpleasant it might be. None of us have crystal balls, and we never know whose path we will intersect later in life, or in what capacity. The more polite and professional you remain, the more willing people will be to work with you at any point.

And one final caveat to my peers in the business world: Time does not stand still. I already count 15 gray hairs on my head. One day, we’ll be the older workers, and a new generation will be complaining about us. So let’s remember where we came from, and snuff out the Gray Hair Effect forever.

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