Pamela LaTulippe still recalls the day 10 years ago when she walked into a client's office and got a stinging reminder that she looked much younger -- and to some, less credible -- than her 25 years.
"The general manager looked at me, and the first thing he said was, 'How old are you?'" says LaTulippe. "I didn't answer with my age; I answered with my experience." And the tactic worked.
Once the client knew LaTulippe had already racked up two years at a business just like his, he offered her a smile, a cup of coffee and his full attention. LaTulippe went on to complete a number of software training projects for the client.
"Age is irrelevant; it's what you have to offer that's important," says LaTulippe, now 35 and a cofounder and vice president of marketing at Digital Music Network, a digital entertainment startup. And yes, she is still questioned about her age.
Being mistaken as younger than you are can lead to job offers withheld, promotions lost and even rivalries with colleagues. Or you can turn it into an asset that leaves your superiors and coworkers wondering how you learned so much so soon. Here's how:
Envision Your Career
In order to exude confidence, you need to develop a clear career plan. "Being credible is not about being perfect," says Kevin Cashman, founder and CEO of LeaderSource, an international leadership development and executive consultancy in Minneapolis. "Being credible is about knowing what you know and what you don't know. It's about being real. Then people can trust you."
Play the Part
Appropriate business dress and decorum are important for every professional, but they're doubly important for those whose appearance belies their years. "I think one of the great handicaps we now have is this business-casual society," says Patrick Riccards, whose boss once told him he was chronologically challenged. "If you're young, know what you're talking about and wear a good suit, you can bridge that gap relatively fast." With a beard to cover his baby face, the vice president for public relations at a business services provider in Alexandria, Virginia, can finally pass for a little older than his age of 27.
Know Your Stuff
One surefire way to silence your critics is to perform. Do your homework, and don't be afraid to share your knowledge. "The bottom line is that nobody cares how you look," says LaTulippe. "In the end, what really matters is that you can get the job done."
Learn to Defer
Sometimes you have to be willing to defer to older-looking colleagues. When Riccards worked as press secretary in Congress, he would typically start off projects with a more senior -- and older -- coworker. Once the people involved were comfortable with his capabilities, Riccards would take over. Sometimes LaTulippe brings what she calls a "puppet" to meetings, a colleague who looks older than she and has an air of credibility.
Swallow Your Pride
There may be times when you'll have to put aside your experience and know-how for the good of the firm. LaTulippe experienced such a scenario when she and a colleague recently met with a group of Japanese executives. When LaTulippe got up to do her presentation, Digital Music Network's host was less than pleased. She would have gladly handed the task over to her colleague if he knew the material. "I can put my ego aside and say, 'this isn't about me and how people need to perceive me.' It's about what we need to do to get it done."
Age can only derail your career if you let it. And the years seem to have a way of catching up with all of us. "I was called 'kid' by my first full-time employer," says Terri Grodner, vice president of Ovation Design, a marketing communications firm in Farmingdale, New York. At 40, she's finally beginning to look her age. "I figured that time would cure youth."