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  • 5 Steps to Master Managing People Older Than You

    It was the first day of my first job right out of college. Despite all the group projects and being president of different clubs, there was nothing that could have prepared me for what sat in front of me. Literally sitting in front of me were 15 customer service reps, all older than me, half of whom had worked at the company longer than I had been alive; and I was supposed to be their boss.

    Over the next few months I labored to learn the best way to manage people with more experience and knowledge than I had.  Luckily, learning how to do this was not rocket science, it just involved incorporating a few simple rules that not only created a better working environment but led to consistent results.

    Step 1: Understand the different stages of a career.  I still remember the first conversation I had with one of my new salespeople when I got promoted to regional sales manager 3 years ago.  Larry was in his mid 60’s, had grandkids and was pretty set in his ways (and was vocal about it!). In describing his goals for the future he crafted an interesting analogy.  “Here is the mountain,” he said, angling his arm in a sloping motion. “Here is you,” he explained, using his fingers to walk up the front side of the imaginary hill, “and here I am” he continued, jumping his walking fingers down the bottom of the back side of his fictitious mountain. “I will work hard, but I am on my way out. As long as you understand this analogy, things will work between us.” We enjoyed a good laugh in the moment, but I could see his point.  I was at the beginning of our career, looking for ways to get promoted and make an impact.  Larry, on the other hand, was just looking to spend time with his family and get a paycheck so he could travel and finish paying off the house he had bought 20 years before.  Naturally there are degrees in between our extremes, but remember the hill and where you are in relation to the older person you are managing.

    Step 2: Never pull the “I’m the boss” card. It is a big mistake for you as a young manager to let authority go to your head.  Instead of looking for ways to enact your power, let your older direct reports know that you are there to help them, not boss them around.  Offer them assistance in fulfilling their job responsibilities better and faster, but always do so with a helpful spirit.  They will often help you more than you could ever help them.

    Step 3: Get to know them personally, show them you care.  In a work environment, especially when you are responsible for a group of people, the personal side of things often gets lost in the fold.  It is important to get to know your people, as people not just as workers.  This is even truer for employees older than you. Learn about their families and what they like and dislike.  Odds are their passions will be much different than yours, but if you take interest in them, it will foster loyalty. I observed that most people expect that their manager will tell them they need something every time they interact.  I make a conscious effort to interact with my employees and not ask for anything. At first they will respond, “what do you want?” when you come speak to them individually, but they will be surprised when you don’t have an ulterior motive. This will make them realize you are different than other managers they had before.

    Step 4: Adapt your communication. People of different generations communicate differently.  While we are comfortable with emailing someone, receiving a text message response and then calling to confirm things regarding a single issue, older workers often are not.  Make sure that you learn how your employees like to communicate and utilize that medium to converse with them.  Generally face-to-face communication is best (although our generation is used to leveraging technology more); however this is not always possible.

    Step 5: Ask their opinion. This step is the most difficult and is constantly overlooked.  Generally, when an older employee has a younger manager they feel threatened (think of Dennis Quaid’s character in the movie In Good Company).  They have a desire to feel valued and that their opinion is important.  During performance discussions, as your employee what they think of your performance as a manager. You will get great feedback.  When it comes to decisions that affect the team, get their input and do what you can to implement ideas shared.  When it is not possible to get input, tell them. Also, any time you need to direct the team to do something, remember to tell them whySaying “because I said so” only works when you are a parent, not when you are a boss.

    From my experience, after incorporating these 5 steps, the “age” thing was no longer an issue.  In reality, I encounter more problems with people around my age. An employee around the same age feels like he can get away with doing whatever he wants, so he pushes for us to be “friends” (to break down the responsibility I have as a manager).  The best solution is to meet the issue head-on and let him know what your role as a manager is. Make it clear that you are going to treat him the same as everyone else.

    Whether older, younger or the same age, managing people can be a challenge. Perfecting this skill is important, however, because your ultimate success in business is not what you can do, but what you can get others to do.

    Author:

    Aaron McDaniel, is a corporate manager, entrepreneur, author, public speaker and community leader. Aaron has held numerous management roles at a Fortune 500 company, being one of the youngest ever appointed appointed Regional Vice President at the age of 27, and is the founder of multiple entrepreneurial ventures. Aaron instructed a highly rated student-led course on leadership at UC Berkeley’s Haas Undergraduate School of Business and has a book, The Young Professional’s Guide to the Working World: Savvy Strategies to Get In, Get Ahead, and Rise to the Top, due to be out later this year. Aaron offers advice that helps young professionals build the foundation for a successful career. Visit his blog to learn more.

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    Posted in Career Development, gen-y, Personal Branding, Success Strategies
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    7 comments on “5 Steps to Master Managing People Older Than You
    1. avatar
      EXPERT
      Chris says:

      I think that this article brings up some very powerful advice. However, I think that the title does not do the body justice. Instead, I suggest the title “5 Steps to Master Managing People”. Age is not the factor here. Being a great leader is. With awareness, open communication, modesty, and a supportive attitude, you can do more than manage those older than you; you can manage people of all ages.

    2. avatar
      EXPERT
      Sharon says:

      Good comments Chris – I was thinking just the same as I was reading it, why is it referring to age, the points made are relevant for all ages and as you say, its about being a great leader! Not all people of a certain age are ready to put their feet up…..

    3. avatar
      EXPERT
      Raj Gondhali says:

      Very well written Aaron !

    4. avatar
      EXPERT

      I’m 62. A new Sr. editor for a magazine I work with is 34. She always wants to bounce ideas off me. She takes my suggestions seriously and often uses them. In fact, I suggested creating a new section that is fast becoming the heart of the publication. Some of us oldsters do know a thing or two.

      I like working with her because she is not arrogant, but self-effacing and eager to learn. It’s the other younger editors that put me off–power-hungry, needing to show off. But show off what?–that they’re young and naive? It already shows.

    5. avatar
      EXPERT
      Linda says:

      Nicely done, I suspect this truly is a broader view of simply ‘How to Manage Well” and it is unfortunate more new managers do not see the value of getting to know their teams personally.

      Our problem today is the ever growing ageism. We shed older workers and lose their valuable insights. Young managers, more often than not, fail to recognize the value of experience, ignoring those members who may have made other choices in their career including not climbing that ladder they are on.

    6. avatar
      EXPERT

      Well written Aaron. I strongly agree with adapting your communication to people of different generations. Adjusting your communication style is essential when trying to get buy in from your direct reports.

    7. avatar
      EXPERT
      Aaron McDaniel says:

      Great comments everyone!

      @Chris- Good point about the title, you are right about the attitude and communication (among other things) that really matters in your effectiveness as a leader, having nothing to do with age.

      @Sharon- Thanks for keeping me honest on this. It’s about all people and not just those older than you.

      @Raj- Thanks!

      @Cindy- Yep, people who get stars in their eyes and think they are better than everyone else just because they are moving up the chain faster often are in for a rude awakening since how they treat others will come back to bite them. When they are arrogant or power hungry it doesn’t empower you or I to work hard for them.

      @Linda- You are right. Young people often discount wisdom and experience, instead focusing on how “things have changed’ and that “the old rules don’t apply,” when in reality things go through cycles and what led to success before can come in handy for the situation at hand. Young people need to leverage this experience and show that it is valued.

      @Kenton- Yep, communication is such an important thing. Even if you get the other steps right, if you don’t communicate effectively you won’t motivate your team to do their best.

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