Leading Older Employees
This post was originally published in the Harvard Business Review.
The litany of leaders who’ve founded and built their companies in their twenties and thirties is long and storied. It’s hard to read much of anything in the news these days without Mark Zuckerberg, Biz Stone, or Andrew Mason weighing in. But more and more today, even the average young professional, the Millenial, is taking on increased responsibility at work, and managing and leading others far older than themselves.
Being a leader is tough enough when you look and sound the part, when you’ve got the war stories to prove you’ve toiled in the trenches and earned your way to the top. But leading without that authority, managing employees ten and twenty years older than you, receiving a mandate from the top but lacking the backing of the troops in the middle and at the bottom of the organization — that is a real challenge.
How does one lead without power? What do you do if you’ve got the title but not the experience? What if you’ve got the experience but your baby face betrays you? What do you do when your boss supports and respects you but you suspect your colleagues simply don’t?
The challenge is not uncommon and it’s not insurmountable. It takes just the right mix of thoughtfulness, tact and strategy on your part. When you’re young and you’re tasked with leading, the three most important things to keep in mind are as follows:
- Be Confident
- Be Open Minded
- Solicit Feedback Regularly
Let’s assume that you’ve found yourself in the position of leading or managing older employees for a valid reason — you’re competent and capable. You’re smart, energetic, full of ideas and ready to take initiative. No matter that you yourself may doubt whether you’re really up for the challenge (who doesn’t?), those doubts need to remain your own, not be shared with your team.
Your first task is to come from a place of strength when talking to your employees or your team. Start with what you know. Speak with conviction. Give those you manage a clear sense of where you’re headed with any new project or client. Assume that your ideas are good ones until you hear otherwise. You’ll give people an opportunity to weigh in later, but don’t start off by qualifying or undermining your statements with defeating statements like: “This might be wrong, but…” Or, “I’m not sure if you’ll agree, however…” Or, worse yet, “I know I haven’t been here very long, but I think we should…” Those statements are completely and utterly damning.
Instead, communicate your confidence by sharing your ideas, initiatives and strategies openly. “Here’s how we’re planning to move forward with the James account.” Or, “I want to get you up to speed on the Schiller project and fill you in on next steps.” Sound like you know what you’re talking about and people will come to believe that you do.
Be Open Minded
Balance your confidence and poise with an open mind. Don’t ask for outright guidance or direction, instead, put forward your positions, opinions or strategic direction and then gather feedback. Be receptive to your teams’ thoughts and insights. Solicit their opinions and ideas, but use your phrasing to gather confirmatory evidence (“does that sound like the approach you had in mind?” Or, “Is that in line with your thinking on this?“) as opposed to asking outright if something is right or good. Your baseline is one of competence, not ignorance or inexperience.
Give your colleagues or subordinates a voice and get them vested in the process by sharing ideas and stress-testing strategy. But be sure you’re the one setting the agenda and leading the charge. Asking for input, advice or feedback is different than asking for permission or guidance.
Finally, make it your business to seek out feedback from colleagues regularly — superiors and subordinates — about your performance. Irrespective of specific deals or projects; let people know that you care about continuous improvement. If you message that you’re open to receiving feedback, people will be more likely to give it.
While it’s okay to acknowledge that you’re in learning mode or listening mode, you can’t live there forever and you certainly don’t want to start there. Start strong, keep an open mind and bring people on board to keep you moving in the right direction. Just don’t ask what direction you should be moving in or you’ll wind up losing your team’s respect before you’ve had a chance to win it.