Written by Miles Henson on 25 Apr 2016
A number of weeks back I was having a discussion with a group of my friends about our different roles in business and we got into the challenges of managing different generations of people. Much has been written about how to manage people that are much younger than you with lots of attention being placed on Millennials and the Digital age workforce coming through and how the older generations should approach this. Most of this has been written by people in their 40’s or older. Our conversation then moved in the other direction and we started to think about what is it like to be a younger manager, managing the older generations. Here are some of our thoughts...
So whilst in our early and mid-twenties, most of my friends moved into their first management position. And on the first day in the job, we all said that we noticed what was bound to be quite a challenge: our direct reports were, on average, 10 to 15 years older than us.
Immediately, we all agreed that unwittingly we had formed some judgments about these colleagues and how our relationships would be, which all turned out to be pretty much off the mark. We learned (very quickly) that when you make assumptions, you make—well, you know the rest!
So we gathered our thoughts over our coffees and came up with some myths that I guess all of us to more or a lesser degree, had thought were true.
When we managed colleagues much nearer our age, we knew pretty much what their lives were like. Since we had been in the same position just a few years before, it was easy for us to relate to them on a daily basis. So when we started managing employees who were a decade older than us, we didn’t think we would be able to relate to their lives. They had spouses, children, and even grandchildren—and we weren’t at that stage of life yet. So we initially held back, and figured that the less we got to know these employees, the less they’d notice the disparity in our personal experiences.
Looking back for some of us, this was an extremely naïve way to approach the situation. Even if you’re not in the exact same position in life as your reports, you can still take an interest in their lives. You may not be able to offer advice (and that’s not your job anyway), but you can ask about their families, past work experience, and career aspirations. You have all those things, too, even if they look a little different.
Forging a personal connection with your team will help you understand them better—what motivates them, how they learn and communicate, and what matters most to them—and that will help you become a more effective leader. We had all learned from these experiences.
We all agreed that when we accepted a management position, our technical skills (particularly IT) were pretty good, we were keen, professional and organised. But we also agreed, we didn't want our colleagues to notice our lack of management experience, so we made decisions and formed processes on our own, without consulting them. When projects (inevitably) didn't go the way we planned, we realised that without their input, we weren't always making smart moves.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a manager (of any age) is to refuse to learn from your team. In fact, your older employees are one of the best resources you can use to adapt to your new position. They've been with the company (not to mention in the industry) for several years—which means they’re aware of what works and what doesn't, they've seen almost every possible problem, and they know the company’s clientèle better than anyone else. Sometimes as a younger manager we are so keen to impress, we see it as weak to ask for help. This is not the case of course. Asking for help is a sign of strength.
So every day, we all agreed we should learn from them. Ask them if they've seen a particular problem before, and if so, how they solved it. Ask their opinion on new processes that you are thinking of implementing, or how they would suggest making the department more efficient.
Most of the time, older colleagues have great ideas that they’re more than willing to share. Their lengthy duration at the company is usually a sign that they’re invested in it and want to see it succeed.
This assumption we thought, was two-fold: when we first started managing older teams, we assumed that since many of them had been working at the company for more than 10 years, they knew all there is to know about the software and the company’s internal systems. However, it would have been equally easy for us to assume that our older employees weren't as tech-savvy as their younger co-workers, and would need exponentially more training in order to pick up on the intricacies of the programs.
And, wouldn't you know it? We were sometimes wrong on both accounts. No matter his or her age, every person learns differently. So at the end of the day, forget what you've heard and get to know your employees individually. This can also provide the perfect opportunity for team cross-training—the employees who are strong in one area can teach employees who are struggling with that skill, and vice versa. With this approach, everyone will get the chance to be the trainer and trainee—and that will create a culture of teamwork.
During our discussion my friends and I talked a lot about the fact that we all noticed the age difference between our colleagues and us, particularly when we first took up our first management role. Many of us immediately thought, “There’s no way they’re going to respect a young person who’s fresh out of University or in their first senior role’’. And what’s worse: we let these thoughts infiltrate our management style—some of us even avoided confrontation with the older employees, figuring that they wouldn't be receptive to our coaching or feedback because we were so young.
And that was our biggest—and most costly—mistake. Some of us admitted that we didn't hold our employees accountable, and let their poor performance slide.
It was a really interesting conversation and it was fascinating that many of us had either had the same thoughts or had the same experiences. So that’s why I thought it would be useful to put some thoughts into writing and remove some myths. Too much is said about managing younger generations and not enough about managing older generations. So who knows? Maybe our employees did consider our age at some point. But the real issue here is that you earn respect by doing your job, and doing it well. As a manager, if you effectively coach your team, help them understand and work through mistakes, provide the training they need, and recognise their successes, you’ll gain their respect—no matter your (or their) age.
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