Leading When You Are the Least Experienced Person in the Room

Many young professionals are asked to assume leadership positions, even when they are one of the least experienced people on the team. This can happen to a new volunteer who thinks they are volunteering to “help” with something and suddenly find themselves in charge, a new faculty member on a college or university committee, a summer intern asked to lead a safety program, or the recent Ph.D. graduate leading a small team of technologists. While this is a common situation for young professionals, mid-career professionals taking on new skills or making a career change can find themselves in the same situation. It is important to note that “experience” can come from both technical knowhow and cultural understanding. Cultural understanding can include everything from a knowledge of a corporations best practices to differences in work habits around the globe. Below are some tips on how to be the most effective leader possible when you are, or feel like, the least experienced person in the room.

1. Remember what it means to LEAD

A true leader is able to bring together a team of people with diverse talents to create a specific outcome. A leader does not have to excel at all of the activities that their team undertakes to achieve success. Remembering that you can rely on your team’s expertise will take a lot of the pressure away.

2. LISTEN

One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is thinking that they have to know everything. Even when they think they can rely on their team, many leaders will ask for advice from team members and then start formulating their own ideas without really listening to their team members. Make a special effort to really focus on what your team members are telling you.

3. Don’t be too transparent about your lack of experience

A recent paper in the Harvard Business Review by Herminia Ibarra titled “The Authenticity Paradox” suggests that leaders who are overly candid regarding their concerns about leading with less experience than of some of their team members can create a very negative impression of themselves early on. Since first impressions are critical, it is important to appear excited and enthusiastic to learn rather than self-doubting.

4. Rely on past experiences

While you may not have had the opportunity to lead in the capacity you currently find yourself in, most times you will have some past experiences that you can draw from. These can include mentoring an undergrad in grad school or during a post doc, being captain of a sports team, choreographing a dance routine, being a section band director, or selling cookies or popcorn in the scouts.

5. Take into account cultural and technical aspects of the team

Your team will have a lot of valuable knowledge that you will need to tap into to accomplish your goals. Some team members will be steeped in cultural knowledge while others may be strong technical leaders. Some team members may have experience in both the technical and cultural aspects. Many young professionals will have gained technical experience through their schooling. Often times these young professionals will rely heavily on their technical understanding, forgetting that there may be significant cultural hurdles to their approach. Conversely, mid-career leaders who are switching roles at the same company may rely on their understanding of corporate culture much more heavily than their technical knowledge. In both cases, it is critically important for the leaders to consult and listen to their team to learn what they are not an expert in.

These steps should start you off in your endeavor to be a new leader in an area where you do not have a lot of experience. These experiences will provide you wonderful opportunities to learn from experts and expand your skills set. Undoubtedly, you will make some mistakes along the way. It’s whether or not you learn from your mistakes that matters.

Christine E. McInnis, Ph.D.

Article by Christine E. McInnis, Ph.D.

Christine McInnis is a Dow Microbial Control Global R&D Water Platform Leader at the Dow Chemical Company. She is also the Chair of the Local and Regional Affairs (LRA) working group within the YCC.