Spetner on age: Young doesn't mean you don't belong

In 1994, I was invited to the PR Seminar. It turned out to be the first of many.

In 1994, I was invited to the PR Seminar. The Seminar was, and still is, an exclusive group comprising many of the top comms professionals in the world. It felt like a very big deal to me, as it was something I thought might never happen, and it marked the achievement of a personal milestone.

To be invited, one must lead the comms function for a Fortune 500 company, or be the CEO of a major PR agency. And if you lose your job, you lose your invitation.

I was deeply nervous the first time I attended, as I had no idea what to expect. It was being held at The Greenbrier, an 11,000-acre luxury retreat in the mountains of West Virginia that was established in 1778. A sports coat or dress was required to enter the dining room, and the staff all wore white jackets and black pants.

For a Jewish boy that grew up in Missouri and attended public school, it was unlike anything I had seen. I was worried I didn’t belong, and not just because of the venue. When I looked at the other attendees, I felt young, inexperienced, and unworthy of being there.

I was intimidated by the presence of senior executives from AT&T, IBM, Bank of America, Boeing, and a host of other big firms. These were the top corporations — Facebook and Google hadn’t even been born yet — and the attendees seemed so worldly. I was 15 years younger than most of the group, and I felt like an interloper.

But my nervousness slowly dissipated. I was greeted warmly, included in the conversations, and made to feel welcome. A few of the most senior executives at the conference went out of their way to befriend and include me.

As the conference unfolded, I grew more comfortable, came out of my shell, and began to make what, in many cases, became lifelong friends. Over time, I began to understand these powerful people were human beings just like me, each with their own insecurities, doubts, and personal struggles. And they were more than willing to share their knowledge and experiences.

In my tenth year of attending The Seminar, I became part of a host committee that welcomed new members. I distinctly remember greeting the newly named head of comms for a major airline, whose obvious nervousness made me smile. He was young for his role, and it was clear he felt intimidated by the group. As he shook my hand, he mentioned he had observed my career from afar, and I realized I was gazing at a younger version of myself.

I ultimately attended 20 of these annual gatherings, occasionally missing a year because of some corporate crisis, but always cherished the knowledge gained and the relationships renewed or created.

At my last Seminar meeting, it struck me that while almost none of the same individuals from my rookie year were still there, the essence and dynamics of the group was the same.

There were elder statesmen who seemed to know everyone in the room. There were loudmouths who felt compelled to ask a question of every speaker, and who elicited no small amount of eye rolling. There were brash newcomers who wanted to impress and, of course, there were plenty of wise and confident professionals who were thoughtful, gracious, and warm.

And I couldn’t help but notice that, toward the back of the room, there were a couple of newcomers who seemed to feel like they didn’t yet belong.

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