TodayTix CEO took over at 31. Now 38, he has a message for aspirational young leaders

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There’s much to be said about playing the part for the job you want, not the job you have—especially if you’re young and worried about appearing too youthful for a promotion or senior ranking. Brian Fenty would know. While the average Fortune 500 CEO is over 57 years old, he took TodayTix’s helm in 2017 at just 31.

Under his leadership, the theatre ticketing platform has partnered with Netflix for a live production of Stranger Things: The First Shadow, acquired Secret Cinema and Goldstar, and now reaches over 25 million users on the app.

Although Fenty says he initially struggled with being taken seriously by peers and investors because of his age, the now 38-year-old knew better than to pretend to be wise beyond his years as that had backfired in the past—and his experience offers a valuable leadership lesson for the young and aspirational.

“There’s a fine line between fake it till you make it and learn it and do it well,” he tells Fortune.

Looking back to earlier in his career at the private equity firm Hamilton Investment Partners, where he went on to become its youngest-ever managing director, Fenty recalls a time he was asked to do a task he had never heard of.

“I was asked to create a discounted cash flow, and I was too embarrassed to say, I don’t know what that is,” he says. Instead of getting advice from someone more experienced, Fenty pulled an all-nighter, called in friends at other firms, and attempted to teach himself the task. 

In the end, it left him exhausted and no closer to finishing the task at hand, which he says needed “real world application”. 

“I burned myself out and I let my team down by not asking for help,” he concluded, adding that the experience taught him an early lesson in playing to your strengths—not your weaknesses. 

“My secret weapon is I always bring helium to any situation—and that’s my codeword for optimism,” he adds. “I try always to bring a problem-solving lens: How do we turn this around? Is it worth turning around?”

Instead of getting hung up on what you can’t do, Fenty’s advice to young aspirational workers is simple: Surround yourself with people who fill your skills gaps and ask for help when you need it so that you can focus on excelling in the areas that you’re naturally already good at.

That’s why Fenty recommends that those who want to progress up the ladder quickly put their all into finding their “superpower.” 

“Exploit the hell out of that as early as you can,” he says. “And if you’re doing something that doesn’t exploit it, you’re wasting time.” 

“You can learn in any job,” he doubles down. “If you’re in a job where you’re learning things that don’t allow you to navigate the thing that makes you unique, then you’re going to waste a lot of time.”

Don’t sell yourself short 

Although Fenty doesn’t recommend lying to yourself (or others) about where your skills fall short, he does encourage giving it your best shot.

“Never telling myself I couldn’t do it,” he says, is the secret to why he’s done so well for his age, adding that he had a “vision” for his future himself and just went for it.

His advice for climbing the ladder echoes that of Pret A Manger’s CEO, Pano Christou. Like Fenty, Christou is one of few leaders to gain access to the C-suite over a decade earlier than the average leader (he became CEO at 40).

Now, Christou leads Britain’s biggest sandwich chain—and he echoed that he got to where he is today by saying yes to opportunities that he may not have been quite ready for, but believing in himself anyway. 

“Whenever new, bigger opportunities have been given to me I’ve always taken them—I’ve never said no—even if it really puts me out there,” he told Fortune. “I may have not been ready for a while, but I would always like to take it on and give it my best chance and it has worked out well.”

Likewise, Walmart’s CEO, Doug McMillon, scaled the retail giant’s ranks from unloading trailers for $6.50 an hour to becoming the company’s youngest CEO since its founder—he said he learned the ropes by stepping in for his boss frequently.

“One of the reasons that I got the opportunities that I got was that I would raise my hand when my boss was out of town and he or she was visiting stores or something,” he recently revealed.

The CEO added that he would even offer to step in for his boss in meetings—whether or not he was prepared to answer all the questions that came up. 

Plus, instead of brushing off queries above his pay grade and waiting for his manager’s return, he would proactively respond: “I don’t know, but I’ll find out fast and get back to you.”

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