Managing people who are older than you


Picture this – it is 1984 and like so many Business School graduates, I found myself a job with the objective to climb the greasy pole as quickly as I possibly could.

My first job took me out of Europe to South Africa, where, after a training and induction programme, I was to manage an out of town furniture store with its own distribution facility for home deliveries (we’re talking a type of IKEA operation but smaller) – a total of 120 staff, managed through a team of 5 direct reports. I had worked in the furniture sector before, so this was familiar territory and I was ready for this. This was why I had done Business School, right? I was 23 years old.…and conveniently forgetting about a language barrier (my English was passable but by no means fluent), a cultural barrier and the dreaded age barrier.

My excitement carried me through my first few days on the job. I was exceedingly polite, cheerful, and helpful toward the much older team I was sent in to manage. My job was progressing wonderfully until one member of the team, at least 20 years my senior, interrupted me mid-sentence and asked with barely concealed passive aggressiveness, “How old are you?”

“How old are you?”

There were clearly so many other issues I grappled with in the first few days, that I hadn’t expected that question, therefore it stopped me dead in my tracks. I was surprised how much it hurt and how personally I took it.
Over the next few weeks, the age references kept coming. I heard everything from “You’re younger than my grandson” to “Are you old enough to drive?” and “The cleaners did not come in today, would you mind doing the toilets?”

No respect, and although my hair was rapidly thinning, I couldn’t exactly fake wrinkles.

Although initially disheartened that my age was undermining me at work, I was determined that it would not affect my performance. I’d like to say that I figured it all out and managed the situation like a pro, however this turned out to be the school of hard knocks and I made many, many mistakes – some small, others now cringe worthy. That said, with the benefit of hindsight, I discovered some valuable insights.

1. Two ears, one mouth. Use them in that ratio.

Know when to listen and when to speak (and speaking last takes a real effort and is a skill not to be underestimated). In early conversations I had with team members, my mind would fast forward to the points I felt I needed to make to prove that I was capable. After a while, I came to the realisation that others felt their ideas and opinions were being glossed over and dismissed. It took a conscious effort to quiet the voice in my head that wanted to prove itself, however really listening to others and questioning their ideas was worth the effort. If your colleagues feel valued, respected, and heard, they’ll notice your maturity, not your age.

2. Know your staff.

Although older doesn’t always mean wiser, it does usually mean more experienced. You need to figure out the strengths of each individual and leverage it. Once you know their talents and strengths, you can turn to them when faced with certain issues or problems. They will look good and you will shine brighter as a leader when each individual member of your team is given the encouragement and tools to perform in the spot light.

3. Let’s get the job done, why focus on the process?

Each person delivers their best work under a different set of circumstances. Let’s pay attention to your team members’ needs and see whether they can be fulfilled. We used to work in a noisy, large open plan office, however I had an employee who required absolute silence in order to concentrate. I couldn’t understand that process, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt—she got one of the meeting rooms as an office so that she could work in solitude, and the rest of the team would catch up over coffee with her twice a day. In the end, her work was exceptional, so why not?
Surrender your ego, and put the team’s ability to succeed first.

4. Be bold about your age

The good news is that is now illegal for someone to ask your age in the workplace. The bad news is that people ask it anyway. Bearing that in mind, give some thought to how you want to answer the inevitable question so you don’t get caught off guard. If they see you looking like a rabbit in headlights, you’ll run the risk that you confirm their suspicion that you might be faking it until you can make it.
If you are comfortable with sharing, go ahead, otherwise “old enough to do the job” will suffice! Whichever way, just be prepared for the question, answer it with confidence, and move on. Don’t let it become a subject for continued speculation.

5. Be cool, calm and collected.

All too often, the mood in the office is dictated by the manager’s temperament. If you’re stressed, you’ll easily become irritable and you might find it difficult to concentrate. The problem is that if you are young (and less experienced in leading others) your age will soon be blamed if you show your frustration, even though managers of all ages share this trait. However the real danger is that your team may look for de facto leadership elsewhere in the business.

The end result is, that if you are chaotic and unsure of yourself, your staff will pick up on it. If you can be a source of calm and reason for your team, your age won’t matter.

6. Gain respect, don’t seek approval

Was it Machiavelli who said he would rather be feared than loved? Although I wouldn’t advice instilling fear in your employees, I think there is a difference between respect and love, and when it comes to employees’ treatment of the manager, a healthy amount of respect is always best.

Your office is not the time or place for you to find your new best friend or workout partner. If you are driven by the need to be liked, your employees will inevitably start to wonder who is actually in charge. Have clear parameters for behaviour. Speak up when people cross boundaries, if you don’t then other employees will notice. Although seemingly insignificant at the time, seeking the approval or acceptance of your staff gives the impression that you are a pushover, or worse, that you are scared of offending them.

Finally, remember that you may be young, but if you are in a leadership position, it is likely because you have devoted your life thus far to refining your career and ability. There is an anecdote about a lady who saw Picasso briefly doodling on a napkin in a restaurant: She asked to buy it from him, and he said, “sure, that will be $100,000.” She was aghast at the price tag, and commented that it had only taken him five minutes to create the drawing. Picasso responded, “No, it took 30 years of experience to draw that.”

Never allow others’ perceptions of age dilute the value of the life-long hours you have devoted to your gift, your skill, and your leadership.