What it takes to fast track your career from an early age

When he was 12, Michael Pell wrote a lot of letters.

But instead of being to pen-pals, they were all addressed to TV stations, imploring them to take him on as their work experience boy.

"Dad would fax them from his office. I wrote letter after letter after letter until Channel 9 took me on. Nobody in my family worked in media so I needed to make my own relationships."

Once they took him on, he returned yearly. By 13, Pell was writing weather reports. By 14 he was well-known in the TV industry. By 19, he was writing rolling coverage on the Iraq war and by 28 he had one of the top jobs in Australian TV: Executive Producer for Sunrise.

Pell is one of a breed of young leaders, epitomised this year by France's youngest ever President Macron (39), whose steep and early ascent presents challenges and benefits, both for the young manager and their staff.

Partying was starting work at 4am

Pell, now 35, is the early-riser who truly earned his early rise. Breakfast TV has been a longstanding passion, even at university: "While everyone was out partying, I was doing a double shift: 4am to 1pm at Sky News. I'd then drive across the bridge and do uni 2pm to 9pm. I was on a mission – a clock ticked in my head that'd run out unless I did useful things very early."

Does he feel like he missed out? He laughs, then gently sighs: "Yes I do feel like I missed out! But it doesn't play on me. I was so obsessed with TV that at 18, the most fun thing was being in the studio. That was partying to me."

The benefits, though, have made the sacrifices worth it: "When you learn skills very young, they become second nature. I certainly find more time now to relax, have fun. I'm on less of a mission."

I can't keep up some days

Reporting in to a manager over a decade younger than him has been eye-opening for Andy Burns, 41. As General Manager for Creative Agency Digilante, his boss is the Managing Director and founder Kiel Van Daal, 30.


An open mind and fortuitous dynamic cemented their great working relationship: "Any preconceptions were outweighed by his drive, ambition and already impressive CV. It helps that Kiel is an older soul in a younger body and I'm a young 41! We meet nicely in the middle."

There are, he says "huge advantages" to having a plucky younger boss: "In the startup world it helps because they're fast moving and ahead of the curve. Younger people like Kiel haven't had to wait for things like my generation! It's the reverse of my past corporate roles where it'd take a lot of time and people to make decisions."

I have to push him on the drawbacks: "Kiel has a huge amount of energy and drive. I can't keep up some days. He's full of ideas and wants to do everything now so we do have to harness that in on occasion."

Burns admits he'd feel differently in the corporate world: "That's where I'd prefer an older boss; it takes years of experience and huge patience to navigate."

The weight of responsibility

A benefit for young leaders seems to be that ignorance is bliss; not fully appreciating the full burden of your responsibility leads you to stress less, whilst still taking it seriously enough to deliver. Michael Pell says: "Looking back, I think, wow. I was young. I didn't quite get how influential it was; the weight of it didn't strike me till years later."

It's an attitude shared by Natalie Scanlon who, aged 25, managed a team of twenty mostly older staff at the Financial Ombudsman Service: "I was unaware of the serious responsibility until I moved on, but I understood the importance of being the best I could. It meant earlier mornings, late nights and lots of pressure."

For Scanlon though, the drawbacks took their toll: "Some of the team definitely didn't trust me. It was extremely difficult to get them on board. I worked so hard, but wouldn't be taken seriously when providing direction."

Did I peak too early?

Did early success punish or spoil her? "Yes – that's why I founded my own communications company. Anything less and I would've been disappointed in my career progression. I had concerns about going back to previous roles I'd had during university - I'd have felt a failure."

Pell agrees that subsequent positions could feel unsatisfying: "The next step is hard. If you've reached pinnacle quite early, where do you go from there? I have the perfect job now and although I worked hard for it, I was lucky to get it at such a young age. There's no other job where you get to start the hour interviewing the Prime Minister and finish it with a Katy Perry concert."

Unlike Scanlon, Pell says he hasn't been aware older staff reporting to him being an issue, "perhaps because I've been around so long even though I'm still young."

Quite the opposite, in fact, is true.

"People ask if Kochie and I have a father/son like relationship and I reply that indeed we do. I'm the father. He's the son."

Have you become a leader in your field early on? Share your experience in the comments section below.