Perceived as Too Young and Inexperienced? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a smart woman with an impeccable work ethic. I get more done in less time that just about anyone I know. The “Exceeds Expectations” box is checked on nearly every dimension of my performance reviews over the last few cycles.

I have been a director in my company for a few years now, and last month I did not get the promotion to AVP that I expected. It is a running joke in the organization that we have so many AVP’s—as in, you have to really not be delivering if you don’t get there in a few years. That is certainly not the case for me, so I finally cornered my boss for an explanation.

He was obviously worried that he might say something wrong, so he beat around the bush for a while. But what I finally got is that apparently I am perceived as too young, bright-eyed, and enthusiastic—and I lack “gravitas.” I had to look it up. To be fair, I am young and I look even younger than I am. I am super extroverted, love connecting with people, and have been called “vivacious.” My friend group nickname for me is “Bubbles.”

I tried to get my boss to tell me what I should change to be considered for a promotion, but he didn’t have much to say about that. He just kept saying “You need to work on your executive presence.”

Where do I start?



Dear Bubbles,

I want a friend named Bubbles. How delightful you sound. I am sorry that your assets (looking young, having so much energy, being enthusiastic) are working against you achieving your career goals. It tends to be the case that our greatest gifts can have a dark side. I feel bad for your boss, hapless as he is, because this kind of feedback can feel so personal. Since some of it might be connected to your being female, it could also get him in hot water with HR. So he has left you to figure it out on your own. That is pretty common.

Gravitas, according to Merriam-Webster, means: high seriousness (as in a person’s bearing or in the treatment of a subject). Oxford says: dignity, seriousness, or solemnity of manner. Essentially, people with gravitas are seen as expert, experienced, believable, steady, and trustworthy. I have experienced women getting the “gravitas” feedback quite a few times. And yes, it does always seem to be women. Although God forbid that a woman be perceived as dour, humorless, or a party pooper.

I’d love to say “Go ahead and continue to be your authentic self—your brilliance and work ethic will eventually speak for themselves,” but I would be doing you a disservice. Perception of others is not necessarily a true reality, but it is nevertheless a reality, and it is keeping you from getting what you want and deserve. There may be some value in making the effort to shift it. Not in trying to change your nature—I would never wish that on you, and it usually doesn’t work anyway—but in consciously managing your behaviors at work to shift others’ perception of you.

The key is to identify behaviors that make you seem young, overeager, impulsive, or somehow not serious. Ask your partner and your wonderful friends “What do I do that makes me seem young, or not serious, or not believable, or downright annoying?” Promise them you won’t get mad. Your feelings might get hurt a little—but better to know now, don’t you think? It could be very illuminating.

Now choose a few behaviors you think you might be able to notice and stop. Start with one:

  1. Notice when you do it.
  2. Pay attention to peoples’ reactions.
  3. Wonder: What might I do differently? How might I express my opinion, thought, excitement with a little less—bubbliness?
  4. Consider what is the shift—from what to what. See some examples below.
  5. Try on a new way. You will fail. You will forget. Keep it up and notice how the reaction of others changes.

Once you get a good hold on one behavior, move down your list.

I can rely only on my own perceptions of people who lack gravitas to give you examples of potential shifts. Maybe some of these will resonate.

Interrupting others to Never interrupting
Thinking out loud, bouncing from idea to idea toPreparing your thoughts and outlining them in order
Cracking jokes toNot cracking jokes—saving your favorites to share with your friends later
Always jumping in during discussions toWaiting until you have something to say that will really make a difference
Repeating yourself because you are so intent that people get your point toMaking your point and explaining briefly how you formulated your thinking
Talking too much toSaying what needs to be said briefly and succinctly
Going off topic without a really good reason toSticking to point, taking notes on important thoughts that are off topic
Getting distracted toMaintaining focus on the matter at hand
Moving a lot physically— bouncing, wiggling, touching face and hair toPracticing mindfulness, sitting still, and breathing as a way to quiet your thoughts and your body
Wearing super trendy clothes and loud, attention-getting accessories. toAdopting a classic, tailored look that complements your best features but doesn’t call attention to them
Giggling toSmiling or laughing briefly  
Pink or purple hair toA hair color found in nature

Here’s the thing, Bubbles—the silver lining of this situation is that it won’t last forever. The beauty of age is that you will gain the benefits of everything you have learned and achieved, and no one will dismiss you for being too young. And when you are the boss, you can still rely on your good behavior habits but allow yourself a little more leeway. You can wear the funkiest glasses you can find. You can guffaw. You can show your tattoos. You can be completely and unapologetically yourself. You will get there—age leaves no one behind. And until you do, direct people’s attention to what matters most about you—your intelligence, your work ethic, your commitment to excellence, and your knowledge and skills.

Effervesce all you want with your friends and family. Fizz away with pals at work who already “get” you, on breaks, offline.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

6 thoughts on “Perceived as Too Young and Inexperienced? Ask Madeleine

  1. Great question and great answer! By the way, I have seen this complaint come up about men as well, but I suspect it hits women more often. Many of the suggestions parallel behaviors recommended in the book “Multipliers – How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter” by Liz Wiseman, which I highly recommend.

    In my career I noticed that many of the more respected leaders let their team members do the talking and saved their input for last, or as an escalation point. That seemed to give them more gravitas, because they only weighed in on the really important issues or to back up their team members. To put it another way, it gave the impression that they were focused on strategic direction and the most important issues and their team were handling most of the day-to-day decisions (with their coaching and support, of course). I tried doing this and found it difficult at first (because I have an opinion about everything!), but with practice I got better at it and then I actually did have more time to work on more important stuff. As a bonus, when I was ready to move, one of my team members was ready to succeed me.

    • Love this – so smart. Marshall Goldsmith also talks about that in his book What Got You Here…

  2. I just read your latest column, about ‘Bubbles’; and, as is my practice, I read ‘the issue’ and tried to imagine how I’d answer *before* I read your advice (just a Saturday morning game that I play).

    But today, I was so completely stumped… I could feel Bubble’s frustration and bewilderment, and I had nothing to give or share, and I felt bad.
    I felt so inadequate, I just wanted to get away, and when I DID finally read your advice, I realized that I WAS THE HAPLESS BOSS.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself…

    I was stopped AGAIN with your first sentence; it was so beautiful that it literally brought tears to my eyes.

    I wish I had a friend like you…

    What a beautiful and timely thing to say!

    The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this woman was a gemstone in the tool section at Home Depot.

    I’m sure you’re familiar with Maya Angelou’s quote about people always remembering how we made them feel…well, if Bubbles feels half as good as I do…

    So glad that I took the time to read that today; have a great day!

    Hapless no more

    PS: the practical advice was really, really good too!)

    • The reason I love the “Advice Column” format is exactly because I think a lot of folks want to play that little game…what would I say?, and then what did she say? Do I agree? Disagree? I love when people post additional ideas for the writer too!
      Thanks for the kind words.

  3. I understand completely about the “executive presence” comment, because I see it in my role. For lack of a better descriptor, it is bearing and composure and the descriptions of behaviors that Madeleine provided are spot-on. It’s akin to acting like an adult versus acting like a kid and it doesn’t have so much to do with appearance, although that can factor in. It is how you carry yourself.

    I have a colleague who does a podcast and she’s taken to heart some of the radio tricks, such as smiling while talking. That’s great for a podcast or improv, but it’s highly distracting while listening to on a conference call. When she is talking about serious stuff but you can hear her smiling voice it creates dissonance and I think of that as another descriptor of executive presence: aligning composure and bearing with the situation and context.

    • Oh that is so interesting!! I totally get what you mean. I have heard lots of “vocal fry” which really weakens presence, and a lot of the upward inflection at the end of a sentence even when it isn’t a question. I think that is called upspeak? It makes the speaker sound uncertain when they are not, and weakens the power of the speaker, in my opinion. The whole smiling voice all the time thing is downright weird. I had a colleague once who adopted a second grade teacher voice when outlining a lot of important detail. She was whip smart but it diminished her credibility. I actually told her (people were talking about it behind her back) and it ruined the relationship and she never spoke to me again. That was maybe the last time I ever gave someone unsolicited feedback with the best of intentions. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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