Leading a Team as a Teen

In our 27th episode, host Sofie Lindberg shares her inspiring story of starting a nonprofit, recruiting a Board of Directors, and leading a growing team of 16 individuals, all before turning 20. Overcoming imposter syndrome, Sofie embraces her youth as her superpower. She highlights the significance of adapting management styles to individual needs and encourages young leaders to be authentic, seek feedback, and prioritize their community’s needs. Don’t miss this empowering episode, motivating young leaders to believe in themselves and create positive impacts in their communities.

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Hello everyone, and welcome back to Claim Your Potential: The Empowerment Podcast. I’m your host, Sofie, and the Executive Director of Claim Your Potential. In this episode, I’m sharing my personal journey of starting a nonprofit, recruiting a board of directors, and leading a growing team of 16 incredible individuals, all before the age of 20. I was super hesitant to record this episode for a number of reasons, one being I did not want to age myself. The second being I didn’t want any of my staff members or my board of directors to listen to this and feel like they can’t respect me anymore or that my work isn’t credible. I didn’t want anyone to get those emotions; I didn’t want anyone to start treating me differently because of that. The third reason that I was very reluctant to record this episode is I didn’t want people externally and internally of the organization to discredit the work that we do – our accomplishments, our ideas, our initiatives, our programs – everything that we do. I didn’t want it to be discredited simply because of my age and my experience.

I have always had a very complicated relationship with age, mostly because I have always been the youngest in the room, and this started in high school and it’s pretty much been true up until this point where I’m at now. No matter what room I’m in, whether it’s work, whether it’s university, whether it’s the people that I surround myself with in my personal life, I’m always the young person in the room. I’m always the youngest person in the room. And when you are the youngest person in the room, it’s a very odd sense of imposter syndrome when you do something right, if that makes sense. And anyone that is at the younger end that’s listening to this because this is really who I want listening to this for this week’s episode, I know that you know what I’m talking about. It’s because when you do something right, especially when you’re young, and when you do something right, let’s say at an organization where everyone around you is much older than you are, it almost feels like there’s no way that I did that right? How on earth did I do something that was actually an accomplishment? At an organization where everyone around me is 15 to even 30 years older than I am, how is that possible? That can’t be possible because they’re the industry experts. I’m still in university, and I don’t know what I’m doing. And I’ve dealt with that imposter syndrome in every position that I’ve ever had. In all the positions I’ve had, I dealt with that imposter syndrome. I dealt with it even before university and before I had jobs. Even in high school, even in parts of middle school, and even in primary school (sorry, that was the Canadian English there), even in elementary school, I always felt like, “Yes, I could be accomplished. Yes, I could be, you know, top of my class, or I could get A’s on my papers or my math workshop (not my math worksheets, definitely not my math worksheets), but I could get A’s on most of everything else, and yet I would still feel like there’s no way that I’m actually good at this.”

And I think, especially being a woman and having such high ambitions throughout most of my life, I felt like those ambitions were not possible or not worthy because I was a woman, because I am a woman. And so, starting out in that headspace (which I’m very thankful that my parents always encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be), but I grew up in Florida, and that sentiment was definitely not strong in public education that women could be whatever we wanted to be. And then I moved to Canada for high school, and that imposter syndrome quickly changed into, “Ok, yes, I’m a woman. I can be whatever I want to be, but I am too young to be what I want to be,” and my imposter syndrome shifted to being really focused on age, on the fact that I was the youngest in every room.

And that imposter syndrome still stays with me most days when I’m in meetings with my team or when I was recruiting our founding board of directors. I truly could not believe that I had done it, that I had been able to not just recruit, but to connect with and to really understand and even educate, in some regard, my board of directors of 9, who are all industry experts in their own field.

But yet they were asking for my advice, my input, my expertise, and that was a very odd feeling to be in, here are people that are 15 to 30 years, maybe even more, older than me, and they’re asking for my thoughts, my opinions, and the future that I see for the organization. And then when we started growing staff, it used to be just me managing all of it. Then we brought on staff members, volunteer staff members, and that is when the imposter syndrome kicked into overdrive.

It was, “Oh my gosh, I am now managing and leading a team of more than 16 people, all of whom are probably older than me if not the same age as me.” This is a very weird situation to be in because it’s like I’m telling you what to do, it feels like I really shouldn’t be because, in any other setting, you’d be telling me what to do, and that was something that I had to really address first and foremost, and yes, I still have those feelings quite often, but I, for sure, keep them to myself first and foremost. But I also take time to understand why I’m feeling that way. I take time to ask myself questions on why I’m feeling that way, and something that I’ve consistently told myself when I have those feelings of imposter Syndrome is, “Who am I to do this, right?” That’s the question I always ask, and then I always reframe that question.

And I then ask myself, and to help avoid falling down that imposter syndrome spiral, I will ask myself, “Am I learning? Am I learning?” And if the answer is yes, then I say, “Then it’s ok. Then I am being successful in my own way because I am learning, I am growing from each mistake that I make because I don’t have it figured out, and I’m okay with that.” I was reading a fantastic book called “Permission to Screw Up,” and it’s about a young woman who started a cleaning business when she was in her second year of university, and she made so many mistakes, and she admits that in the book, is that she made so many mistakes, pretty much every mistake you could possibly make when it comes to managing and leading people. And at the same time, she says that she wouldn’t change those mistakes and that those mistakes were needed to understand what the right thing to do was.

From my own perspective, I can read as many management books as I want, as many books on leading for social impact as I want, and I’m still going to make mistakes. In fact, part of my degree is in organizational sciences, which focuses on management and leadership, and organizational change, and I still make so many mistakes, and that is a part of the management process. That’s also part of the leadership process. And for anyone wondering, especially our young people, why I say management and leadership – because you’ll hear me mention the two not as the same thing because they’re not the same thing. Leadership is all about pushing people. It’s about encouraging people and pushing people to be the best version of themselves. Essentially, it’s rooted in motivation, whereas management is about projects. It’s about tasks. It’s about getting what needs to be done on a day-to-day basis, and so you need both for your organization to work. You need someone that’s leading, someone that’s motivating, someone that’s taking the time to understand the individual motivations of each person, or at least the general shared motivations of each group, or team, and to play on that. And to provide context that makes sense to them on why the organization is doing what it’s doing to keep them going in their position and to make them feel like they’re part of that. Change or that culture or that mission of your organization whereas as I said management is that day to day. How do we get what needs to be done so wanted to preface and put that out there. Anyways, going back to age and imposter syndrome. It wasn’t until I was in a workshop with Diamond Drip, that she and I actually co-hosted, a personal branding workshop on Claim Your Potential, with Claim Your Potential as a sponsor, and one of the questions that she had asked was what is your superpower? What is that 1 thing that you have that you feel like no one else has? What’s that advantage point? And for me, I said age. And it was almost like fireworks went off, a light bulb went off, just everything went off, and my imposter syndrome not cured itself but definitely came down because I realized that that is the 1 thing that no one else has. Is the fact that I am young, which means I have a very different perspective on nonprofits. It means that I can connect with and understand our clients because we serve women 15 to 24, and I’m in that age range. So, I understand their experiences; I can speak to their experiences. I am an industry expert when it comes to the experiences of youth because I fall into that age range, that demographic. And I realize that that’s not a lot. Organizations that have people in charge that are the same demographic as the people that they serve, especially when it comes to youth-centered organizations, is something that is seriously lacking in the nonprofit sector is youth nonprofits that. Dedicate their services to youth. They should be led by youth, people that understand the target audience, especially the target audience in that generation because I know that there are plenty of people that lead youth-based nonprofits that have kids, but again, two very different generations, two very different needs, and so I realized that was my superpower, and I wasn’t playing to it; I wasn’t taking advantage of it. And I knew something had to change.

I wanted to preface that for anyone listening to this that’s young and feels that imposter syndrome and feels like their voice doesn’t matter. Or they can’t start their own business or their own organization because they’re too young or they can’t lead because they’re too young, and the truth is you are never too young, with legal exceptions, I’m going to say that right there but you are never too young. To start leading because you can lead in pretty much any form whether it’s from a very young age on the playground leading people saying hey everyone you know I want to get your opinion on what we’re playing on today. Are we doing jungle gyms? You know, are we doing the slide? What’s everyone feeling? That’s leadership and then as you grow older the stakes of course get a lot higher I no longer ask people if they would prefer monkey bars with a slide but leadership. You can practice from a very early age, and you’re never too young to start practicing leadership. And to anyone any young woman that’s listening to this right now that is leading a team right now. Whether it’s a club at University a club in high school or it’s a nonprofit that you started or a small business that you’re starting or it’s just or maybe you created a volunteering group. Whatever it may be to anyone that’s leading right now here’s some advice that I have for you. About figuring out who you are as a leader and who you want to be the biggest mistake that I made while leading was before I brought on new staff before they started, I sat down and I made this massive list. Of everything that I did not like about previous managers and then I sat down and I made a list of everything I did like about previous managers, and I told myself I said, “OK, I’m going to do everything on this list that. I liked about my previous managers, and I’m not going to do anything on this list that previous managers did what I didn’t like,” and I quickly realized that was not a great idea for a number of reasons. One is every single person’s different. Every single person likes to be led and managed in a very different way, and so while I might have put down having multiple check-in meetings per week as something I didn’t like about a previous manager because I thought it was just too much, one of my members of staff said that they like more check-in meetings, and that we were not doing enough check-in meetings. So, had I not asked her, perhaps she would have burnt out, perhaps she would have quit, perhaps she would have felt like her voice wasn’t being heard, that she wasn’t being taken care of as a staff member, that her manager failed her. And so, when you start to manage people – and I’m using the word manage here because I’m talking day-to-day tasks and leading in day-to-day helping leading projects – when you take on a management role, you have to ask people what they think, you have to ask people how they’re feeling.

You have to ask people the management styles that work best for them, have them make their own list just like how I made mine, and have them share it with you, and then that way, you can pull from their list because, again, every person is going to be different, and if you practice the same management style on every single person, you are going to fail because a manager and a real leader have to be able to adapt to serve the people that they are supposed to be serving. And we call that servant leadership – to put the needs of the people that you serve, whether it’s your clients or your staff, first. And so while I may not like multiple check-ins per week, I know that one of my staff members needs multiple check-ins per week. Otherwise, she doesn’t feel good about the work she’s doing, and I never want anyone working for me, working with me, to feel that. And so I make adjustments, and I think that’s a very hard thing for us as young people to understand and to realize because in most positions that we’ve had as young people, they’re probably intern or lower-level associate roles, and in those roles, people just throw work at you. You’re thrown around to multiple different departments.

No one really cares about your well-being because you’re there temporarily. They know you’re there temporarily, and so no one takes the time to get to know you or if you’re stressed about work or what your real passions are, and if you really want to be working in every single different department and being thrown between every single different department, and I think there’s a lot of power in us having those experiences to better lead people, to better manage people because we know what it feels like to just have a million tasks thrown our way without anyone ever asking us how we are. Know what it feels like to be thrown around to different departments without anyone ever asking us what our real passions are. We know what it feels like to not have people care about our opinion because we’re young. And it’s through understanding those experiences and accepting those experiences that you can use those to fuel and light a fire when it comes to your leadership style, to motivate you to be a better leader for your people, for the people that you serve, and that has been my biggest takeaway as a young person in an executive director role leading an organization that I created, working with people that are older than me, close in my age group, much older than me, with varying different levels of career experience.

I can’t change the fact that I’m young, and I want to be my authentic self when I show up to work, so rather than pretending to be older and pretending like I have all the answers and pretending like everything I say is exactly right, I have started to understand that I’m wrong most of the time. And that’s okay, and I’m going to have failures, and that’s just part of the journey of leadership and part of the journey of starting an organization from scratch. But the only thing that I refuse to fail on is I refuse to fail the people that I serve, I refuse to fail my staff, and while I might make mistakes along the way that appear like failure to me, it’s not a failure because I’m constantly learning how to be a better person in my role. How I can better communicate with people in my role, how I can put their needs above my own, and how I can really understand how I can propel them forward. And so, something that I make a very conscious habit of is this: every single day when people come into check-in meetings with me, I ask them how they’re doing, how they’re feeling, what are their pain points, what are those projects that they’re having problems with, and how can I help them? Are there questions I can answer? Can I walk them through something? I always ask for feedback because I give feedback as part of my role, and so I expect it in return. I never want to just give feedback for the sake of giving feedback and not have people dish it back to me, so to speak, and I’m never afraid of the feedback I receive. And so if someone says, “Hey Sofie, you’re not really great at this. You know you could improve your communication style. Here are some examples,” I always take that as the greatest accomplishment, and the most wonderful part of being a manager is being able to read, to hear, to see all the different ways that I can improve. Because that’s the best part of the journey of leading – learning all the different ways that you can be better at what you do. And so for any young person that is starting their own club, their own organization, or is moving up in the current career that they’re in and taking on a leadership role, remember some of the points that I talked about today because I promise that they will serve you well. If you remember that your age is your superpower, so use it. If you remember that people come first, that every person is different, and that’s okay. And yes, it’s going to be a learning curve sometimes, but you have to get to know the people that you lead, and when you do, it is the most rewarding experience because you feel so much more prepared when you lead them. And last but not least, you can do this. It doesn’t matter how old you are. You can do this; you can make it happen if you really commit to the learning process, to the mistakes, to the wins, to the days where you’re just not going to feel like you belong there, but you do. And so for all of the young leaders out there, you got this.

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