One of the questions I get asked regularly – and more frequently now – is “how do I lead when most (or all) of my team is older than me?” I must admit that I have personally dealt with this situation, but it was some time ago. Now, I suppose I look at this situation from the older perspective.
I’ve been working with and observing leaders for many years, and I think my perspective is more complete now. Here’s what I see . . .
Younger leaders, often in their first leadership role, are concerned about leading those older than they are, possibly people who trained them. They wonder how they will be able to lead successfully and gain respect. More often than not what people asking this question are searching for more than a technique; it’s really a search for confidence.
With that backdrop, let me share five strategies that will help you if you are in this situation (or coaching someone who is):
Recognize the issue may be yours.
When people ask about this issue, I typically ask what behaviors are causing a problem. Often I receive a quizzical look in return. Why? Because sometimes there isn’t an issue from the older person at all. Perhaps you are making a mountain out of a mole hill. Perhaps your issue is more about your own competence, and the challenge is mostly about you. Perhaps what is seen by you as an issue is simply someone getting used to a new leader – regardless of his/her age.
Talk about it.
Whether the age issue is real or perceived, yours or theirs, it is worth talking about. Left un-discussed it can become the elephant in the room causing miscommunication and misunderstanding. Bring up the topic with the individuals or group you lead. Talk about your perception or concerns. Ask them to share their perceptions as well. Opening the lines of communication may solve the immediate challenges, and set the stage for more open communication on all issues in the future.
Show respect to build respect.
Often the young leader’s concern is about gaining respect. The best way to build respect is to be respectful. Respect the work, experience and wisdom of those you lead (regardless of their age). If people do have a problem with your age, part of it may well be that they don’t feel you respect them. They may see you wanting to use new approaches, new technologies and relying on new ideas without regard for them and their opinions. All of these can be good things, but may not acknowledge others personally or professionally. Work to be respectful of those you lead.
Seek their advice.
One way to build respect and trust is to ask people for their advice. One of the best ways to acknowledge people is to ask them what they think. You also can do more than ask for advice, you can ask for their help. You might be amazed how far a little humility will go when leading others – especially early in your tenure.
Let it go.
Taking action on the advice given so far will help. But after doing these four things consistently, if you still feel a challenge based on your age, let it go. Whether the perception issue is theirs, or yours, at some point it simply gets in the way of building your skills and confidence. Let go of the concerns. Let go of the perceived slights. Let go of the snide comments that might be made. Let go and focus on leading.
Of course, it is possible that you have a person who truly resents the fact that a “wet-behind-the-ears-kid” is now the boss. The advice above will start the process of improving her perception of you, but it may not work magic. That’s OK – in the end remember that his perception is his reality. Just keep leading and persistently work to build your competence in her eyes. Eventually he’ll begin to see you in a new way or will notice your newly arriving gray hair.