The challenges of how to manage an older team
Miranda was the third employee to be hired by a start-up business supplies company. She was a skilled CRM expert and within 5 years, as the company grew, she had created a strong online platform and an efficient service orientated tele-sales desk. She had also moved onto coordinating the entire supply chain function including purchasing, warehousing and distribution, despite having no experience in these functions. Following the take-over of an established and ailing company, she was promoted to Operations Director with a seat on the Board. This involved having to manage an older team in some cases by many years, from the acquisition company
“My promotion was a surprise to everyone including me. I didn’t feel ready. And yes there was some resistance, especially from the acquisition, where most of the employees were older and old-school“ she told me. “We are an SME where the Director is hands-on and not sitting in an ivory tower mulling over spread sheets with a secretary and a latte. The warehousing and logistics side was very male dominated with older supervisors, so at 32 I had a double hurdle. I couldn’t even drive and the previous Director had even once fixed one of the vans! Yikes, that seemed like a tough act to follow”
Young managers who are promoted early over established and older employees can have a difficult time. Many women especially doubt their own competence and leadership skills so need to foster confidence and self-belief. They have to make efforts gain the trust and respect of their reports to effectively manage an older team.
Miranda took 5 important steps to manage an older team
1. Meet all reports individually
She arranged meetings with all the reports separately to learn about their problems and aspirations. She had known some for several years, but not that well. The employees from the acquired company she had to get to know from scratch. She took time to find out what was important to them and what their concerns were. Many had astute observations about how certain processes could be improved and what worked well. She noted their concerns and especially what excited them. “I had to take care to be mindful of my own biases.”
2. Respect their experience
Miranda made it clear that she would respect their experience and always listen to their input. She could not always guarantee to take the decisions they wanted, but she reassured them she would always listen. Many of the older employees from the acquisition were suspicious and distrustful in a general sense. They needed systems and technology training. Some of the women reports were not used to having a female boss, especially one who was younger than they were. They looked to their first level supervisors, all male, for final approval. This could cause delays. Miranda gave timelines for implementation, until they learned to act directly on her instructions and develop confidence in her. “It required patience and learning to develop a strong authoritative tone. I had to learn that to deal with the older employees.”
3. Establish authority
This can be tough as older workers can even create challenging situations to test a new younger boss. To do the best you can to manage an older team, it’s important to step up and make the decisions. Miranda’s way was to thank one particularly testing report for bringing the issues to her attention. She gave her responsibility for the function’s “snag” list to deal with the niggling issues that interfered with top performance. She dealt with one poor timekeeper and made her boundaries clear. The absenteeism rate of one employee was monitored and he was put on warning. She monitored the adaptability of some to the new systems.
“I hate that line” Miranda said. “But I had to live by it for a while. It’s not easy to seem confident, respectful and humble and not appear indecisive and terrified! I made it clear that I was there to help them succeed but they had to adapt and learn. If they weren’t able to do that they had to decide if our company was the best fit for them. I didn’t like doing that, but they got the message and there was some organic attrition.”
5. Care and collaborate
Any new boss will be distrusted until she has earned her stripes especially when you manage an older team. There will be some who want to test you. “You have to show you are on their side and make it clear you all share the same goals.” Miranda introduced regular team meetings and created a manifesto agreed by the whole function of what their values should be. She gave clear objectives and responsibilities. Her turning point was when she delivered an order to a customer herself when they saw she was willing to roll up her shirt sleeves. Her next level of reports was the departmental elders who formed an advisory cohort, including a disruptive employee from the acquisition. “It takes time. Easy does it is a good motto to manage an older team”
When you have to manage an older team, it can make you question your experience, authority and suitability for the role. You may even find resistance from older team members, but if you lead with confidence and open ear, you might just find your perfect team.
As Gen Y are the dominant demographic in the workplace, making sure that employees are equipped to manage an older team should be a key objective of all HR functions.