How One Young Professional Deals With Ageism

by Corey Eridon

Date

June 4, 2013 at 2:00 PM

ageism-marketingJessica McKenzie is a strategic channel account coordinator who spends all day, every day, advising inbound marketing agencies. We hopped onto Gchat to talk about her experiences working as a young person in a rather new field, consulting industry folks with decades more experience than her.

Me: Hey Jessica! Thanks for joining me today. We kind of thought of this blog post because I was eavesdropping on one of your conversations while waiting to get lunch. So ... thanks for letting me eavesdrop. We're co-workers, but we sit pretty far away, so can you tell me a bit about what you do?

Jessica: Sure. I work in the VAR channel here at HubSpot as a strategic channel account coordinator (it's a mouthful). In a nutshell, I help to manage our relationships with marketing and PR firms who choose to use HubSpot software for themselves, and also their customers.

Me: Got it. So would you say you're more in a sales role, or a services role?

Jessica: Honestly, in this role, it's hard to separate the two. Within HubSpot, I'm considered Services, but I do chat extensively with my agencies about how they can sell themselves better.

Me: Cool. How'd you get into this industry, and this role?

Jessica: When I first moved to Boston, I fell in love with the tech startup scene. I'm a very passionate person, so working for companies with such amazing vision really appeals to me. I started out as a relationship manager for another SaaS startup, which really means I did everything from account management to marketing and events. I found the part of that job I loved the most was helping people come to important conclusions through my guidance.

Me: So your job now, and in the past, has been to essentially give advice -- which is really the reason I wanted to talk to you today. I heard you talking about the difficulties you and younger colleagues (and let's face it, in tech startups, there are a lot of us) have in establishing authority with more seasoned leads/customers/clients. It's definitely a problem I've faced when I was working at a digital agency. I was young, and I had older clients who had to trust me enough to take my advice. Can you tell me more about that? How do you do it?

quote-1-jmcJessica: Absolutely. It's so difficult to engender that kind of trust in anyone, especially when there's a huge age gap. For colleagues that face this problem, I tell them to start out by ALWAYS using proper language. That doesn't mean "formal English" necessarily, but just adjusting your way of speaking to be more professional when a relationship is starting out. As we increasingly form relationships over the phone, we have to imagine our use of language as our attire. If we use a lot of slang and casual language, our customer is going to picture us in a mini skirt and flip flops.

Me: Do you ever find that's helpful though? Like, do you find if the person you're speaking with is a little more ... mini skirt and flip flops ... that you should match their tone?

Jessica: Oh definitely. If you know you're talking to a CEO and it turns out he's "down" with slang, you can always drop down a few formality notches. But that tactic isn't worth it if you misjudge them and find yourself trying to climb back up the hill when you've started out too informal.

Me: What kind of experiences have you had that led you to this realization? Can you tell me a couple stories where you had someone seriously question your credentials because of your age? And how often do you encounter it?

Quote-2-ce_(1)Jessica: Let's put it this way. When I go to visit my parents, strangers will still ask, "Is your mommy home?" when I answer the phone. I just have a really young voice.

Me: Haha, wow ... harsh.

Jessica: I've used a lot of professional tactics to counter this. One is being really aware of my vocal range, and dropping it a bit lower. Inversely, my male co-worker raises his range to sound friendlier.

Me: Ha! That's some serious self-awareness. Tell me more. What other instances of this have you faced, and how do you counter it/recover from it.

Jessica: It took years! I've had customers tell me they were doing marketing when I was in diapers, call me little girl, and ask to speak with "someone with authority" when a tough topic was broached. But here's the thing we all need to remember: We're doing our jobs because we're good at them. You were hired because you rock at your skill set. When someone challenges you based on age, it doesn't discredit your knowledge. And that's my number one trick to overcoming the age disparity. Remember, you're on the call because you have something to tell them that is important. You do what you can to help them understand it, but ultimately it's up to them whether they decide to implement your advice.

Me: The other thing is ... your age is actually an asset in the inbound marketing industry. You grew up with this stuff. Inbound makes sense to you. You live and breathe it. Do you ever just ... explain that? That your age can be an asset?

quote-3-ceJessica: That's a really great suggestion. I haven't come up with a soundbite quite yet that does that, but I should. My most recent strategy has been to jokingly equate HubSpot years with dog years. I tell them every month at a fast-paced startup is like one year in the real world, so I should be getting a pension pretty soon! Humor in the right way can end the thread and let you pick up the conversation on a more productive note (like discussing whatever you're on the call for in the first place).

Me: Good call -- humor is a great way to dissipate uncomfortable discussions like that. Can we go back to the people calling you "little girl" thing, though? That seems like a blatantly sexist remark. Do your male colleagues experience this as much as you? Do you have any hurdles to jump in establishing authority just by virtue of your gender?

Jessica: That's such an interesting topic, and I think it is so nuanced. Consider the factors of male vs. female, young vs. old, new vs. experienced, cutting edge vs. luddite. Any person can be any combination of those, and your interaction will vary depending on how the characteristics are matched up. You actually hit the nail on the head when you mentioned self-awareness. Who are you? Who are they? How do you need to adjust how you speak and act so they respect you, and trust you? Someone who calls me "little girl" is likely an older, experienced male who might be threatened that such a young woman could be on his level. He's probably also experienced some ageism of his own, being confronted with a new generation of people who are digital natives, and are thus more comfortable with the new trends in our industry. To quell his insecurities, I try to help him see that I respect him and his experience, and together we make a fantastic team.

Me: And the flip side of this, of course, is that we are both quite young, even if we've had a dense (in a good way) professional career thus far. The best people I've worked with complement my brand of industry experience with their brand of work history -- and marketing history. I learn context from them, they learn a new way of thinking about things from me. Hopefully we can both push the ageism aside, because it definitely comes from both sides in our field. So, what's the most valuable thing you've learned from working with people who have been in the industry for decades?

Jessica: The most successful people I work with, who have actually been doing marketing since I was in diapers, have helped me in two really important ways. First, they've taught me that when you've seen the industry move from one extreme to the other, you learn to take in information from all angles. They're not the type of people who nods and smiles when the next best shiny thing is presented; they ask probing and challenging questions. This transitions to the second thing they've taught me, which is that just because someone older is challenging me, doesn't mean they don't respect me or the concept I'm explaining. It means they want to hear all sides of the story, so to earn their respect, I need to be prepared.

Me: Excellent advice. Thanks for joining me today, Jessica, and sharing your experiences. Keep me in the loop on new tactics you come up with, too!

Jessica: Of course! Thanks so much, Corey.

Are you a youngin working in inbound marketing, struggling to establish authority with older leads, clients, or customers? Or are you on the flip side, working in inbound marketing with decades of experience? Share your tips and experiences in the comments.

Image credit: Omer Wazir

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