Today's Challenge: Leading Older People

Each week I respond to a question submitted by a leader. Today’s question is one many leaders have had to answer at some point in their career: How does a young leader effectively lead people older than they are?

This question embodies much more complexity than I could possibly respond to in this post. The context and circumstances make a huge difference in how you might best respond in individual situations. However, I still believe there are principles to guide our actions when leading men and women older than we are. Here are a few of them.
Always show honor, dignity and respect. For some older people, having a younger supervisor will be no big deal; for others it will be earth shattering. Be mindful of their mindset. Be extremely careful not to elevate yourself or devalue them. Perhaps they wanted the job you’ve now been given. Help them adjust to the new reality. Always look for ways to legitimately honor their contributions to the team and organization.
Acknowledge the awkwardness. If you find yourself in a situation leading someone older than you, and it feels weird to you, it’s okay to name it. You may say something like this, “I’m excited about the chance for us to work together and I know you’ve got a lot of years of experience that I don’t have. So, let’s make a deal. It may feel strange from time to time, but let’s agree we’re going to help each other make this work.”
Be quick to listen and slow to speak. Stephen Covey popularized the idea of seek first to understand then to be understood. A great way to do this is to focus on listening. This is always a good idea – when dealing with older employees, it is essential to establish trust and followship. Listen first. Work to understand their perspective on issues before you share your ideas or decisions. My guess is that when you REALLY listen, the older employee will help you make better decisions.
Leverage their experience whenever possible. If someone is two years or twenty years older than you, they have experience you don’t have. How can you capitalize on their past successes? What have they learned in the past that may be helpful to you today?  Don’t overlook experience. If evaluated, it can be a great teacher.
Don’t micro manage. This is my advice when leading anyone – especially people older than you. Set clear objectives, boundaries and timelines and let them do their job. If they can’t, then you have a performance issue to address. Don’t try to do their work for them.
Believe in yourself. The person who gave you your current leadership position believes in you. They selected you to lead, regardless of your age or the age of those you’ve been asked to lead. Don’t let your confidence be undermined by anyone, younger or older than you. YOU were given the ball – run with it.[GLS_Shield]
 

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S Scott Johnson

7 years ago

Great post, Mark! I’ve experienced this myself for many years. I’ve also found that the older, more experienced employee will try to position himself as more of a consultant. That is, he wants to be paid more for what he knows rather than what he does. Sometimes this can be done and may be a great decision especially when he/she just can’t physically do the job. But it can be a challenge for the older employee to keep up with business change, and you do have to manage that performance as you stated. This may mean addressing the performance issue directly or trying to find the employee a better suited job.

scott

7 years ago

Age does not seem to me to be a determining factor in applying any principles including Leadership.

Vance

7 years ago

I could not agree more Mark! I’ve been in leadership positions where most of the people I lead have been older than me for the last 5 or so years. I’m 29 and I manage a department of 33 people and I’m only older than 3 of them. Some have even been working here for longer than I’ve been alive, haha!
I just wanted to reiterate that one of the most important things to do as a younger leader is to make sure that those you are leading know you don’t think you are an “arrogant punk kid who thinks he’s going to come in here and tell me what to do or how to do it.” There are different ways of doing that depending on the person you’re dealing with, but if you can successfully do that and replace that belief with the belief that you really are qualified to lead them and can do it well with respect going both ways, you’ll be MUCH more successful. Ask my how I know… =)
You advice in this article is definitely a great place to start! Thanks for sharing!

mark

7 years ago

Thanks, Vance! Congratulations on your success. Enjoy the journey! Mark

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