TSLH #051: 5 Strategies To Manage Older Employees

TSLH #051: 5 Strategies To Manage Older Employees

Read time: 4 minutes


When I started as a young manager, everybody on my team was older than me. And in the first part of my career as a project leader or a team leader, I was faced with the same situation: I needed to manage people older than me.
With time, I developed some approaches that have worked really fine when I have someone on my team who’s older than me – I don’t know if I need to be happy about it or not, but as the years go, this happens less and less frequently!
Last week, when French President Macron picked a new Prime Minister, the first thing that struck me was the fact that Gabriel Attal, our new Prime Minister is only 34 years old.
I immediately thought: He will face the same challenges I had when starting as a manager, trying to manage ministers in his government who are older than him, sometimes 30 or 35 years older.
I doubt he will ever read my newsletter. However, here are 5 strategies that I have developed over time and that work really well to manage people older than you on your team.
Earn respect. Don’t step in as the young wolf who knows it all, who has an MBA, and who is of course the best leader there is since you were put in this position.
Showing humility rather than hubris will be your key to success.
Start by taking a step back. Realize that you start on a team you know nothing about. You don’t know what the cement of the team is (shared values and behaviors), you don’t know the people on the team, and most likely, you don’t even know in details what their work is about.
This means that as you start as the leader of that team, despite all the pride you may feel, you should realize that you have an immense of amount of things to learn about the team. And you should be humbled by that really.
My advice: As you get introduced to your team, make sure that humility transpires in what you tell them. For instance, in my introduction speech to a team about 8 years ago, I told them this “I am joining your team now, and I must say that I feel like a pioneer here. For sure, I know the company, and what we do. But I know nothing of this team, what work you do. You are the experts in what you do, and I will definitely leverage your knowledge to learn a lot about that and the team. I’ll need your help.”
Be an active listener. I keep repeating it in many of my newsletter, but developing coaching skills like listening and asking questions will give you a significant edge over many other leaders. This is especially true when you become the young leader of a team of older people.
You need to understand that leading older people actually comes with a great benefit: You can leverage the immense amount of experience gathered by the people on the team over the years. This is your big chance to learn from them by asking questions and listening to them.
My advice: Go in with a beginner’s mind. Ask a lot of questions and listen. Don’t draw any conclusion until you are sure you have really considered all perspectives and understood people’s opinions. Ask them to tell you how they solved a specific challenge and brainstorm with them how a current challenge could be solved.
Understand how people communicate. When you are a young manager leading older employees, who are sometimes 30 years older than you, you can expect a clash of generations as far as communication is concerned.
A young leader today is likely someone very adept with social medias, who communicates quickly through these tools or emails. Although these relationships are not necessarily superficial, this is more often than not how they get developed with older people.
Older generations typically rely more on face-to-face conversations, phone calls. Of course, they will use the tools put at disposal by a company, and will be very adept at using modern types of communication, but I’ll bet you that many of your older employees in the team will still prefer the modes of communication they’re used to.
And I am not even talking about cultural differences. You should always be on the lookout for any prefered communication style to make sure you optimize every relationship on the team.
My advice: As you meet the people on your team, and have 1-1’s with them (for your direct reports for instance) or you meet them in other formal and informal meetings, learn from them what their preferred communication style is and adapt your communication to these different styles. This will make the work and the collaboration on the team much more efficient.
Get to know people at a personal level. As the leader of the team, you’ll need to spend a lot of time caring for your people. I strongly recommend you invest some of that time in getting to know the people on your team at a more personal level – and that advice actually goes also for younger people on your team.
This is about knowing who they are in their personal life, what activities they enjoy, what their partner and kids do, etc. The list is endless! Show genuine interest, be curious.
Doing this will help lower barriers between you, the leader, and the people on the team. This also gives you the opportunity to tell others who you are in your personal life. People will see there is actually a human being behind the leader mask. And that will help tremendously to build cohesion in the team.
My advice: Have an open door policy where people can come and see you to discuss any topic. Use coffee breaks to learn more about what makes them tick in life. Organize lunches, dinners, involve their families in some of the events. Have some team activities once in a while.
Use the experienced people as co-leaders. One thing many young leaders don’t understand rapidly is that their team is also here for them. For instance, when they don’t know something or they need help, a good leader will be honest and say it. When the team is engaged, help will come.
One key characteristic of teams to consider, especially as it relates to the older and most experienced people on the team, is that many of these people, although they are not necessarily managers, will be considered leaders by their co-workers. This is because they have more experience, they can mentor and train other people, they have the historical view of the team and the company, etc.
Your job as a young leader is therefore to identify the experienced, older people on the team who you could leverage as co-leaders, relays, and ambassadors for you. When you do that, the team’s engagement will improve because your leadership message will be conveyed by people on the team everyone trusts – possibly more than you, since you’re starting.
My advice: Approach these people with humility, and be transparent about what you need from them. In a case where you want to convey a message about being accountable for instance, you could say “I understand that people trust you a lot on the team. I need your help to make sure my message about accountability is well understood by everyone. What would be the right way to communicate this to the team?”
When managing older employees, keep in mind that you are their manager for a reason: Someone in the company has decided that you were the right person to be in charge. It’s critical that you understand that and don’t let an impostor syndrome set in: You must not be afraid of taking charge and stepping up. Age and experience should not intimidate you; instead they should be factors you leverage to your benefit and that of your team.
I wish you a great read. I’ll see you next Saturday!
TL; DR (Too Long, Did not Read)
5 strategies to manage older employees
  1. Earn respect.
  2. Be an active listener.
  3. Understand how people communicate.
  4. Get to know people at a personal level.
  5. Use the experienced people as co-leaders.

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