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. I knew nothing about managing people older than me.
Over the next few months I labored to learn the best way to be managing 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 future goals, he crafted an interesting analogy. “This is a mountain,” he said, angling his arm in a sloping motion. “Here you are,” he explained, using his fingers to walk up the front side of the imaginary hill. “I am here,” 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 age when managing people older than you.
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’s 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 their likes and dislikes. 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 why. Saying “because I said so” only works when you are a parent, not when you are a boss.
From my experience in managing people, 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.