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It’s becoming increasingly common to find young leaders tasked with the job of leading a team that includes people who are older and more experienced than they are. For the young leader, this is usually a great thing. Whoever said that “if you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room”, knew what they were talking about.
But, it can also be challenging. What do you do if you’ve got the title, but little experience? What if you actually have quite a bit of experience, but your youth causes people to assume that you don’t? How do you create a cohesive team that includes a wide variety of ages and experience levels in a way that empowers everyone individually and propels the organization forward?
What follows is a few suggestions for how younger leaders might approach the task of lead those who are older, and likely more experienced, than they are. However, every suggestion really here applies to everyone in your charge, regardless of their age. Each point only bears mentioning because it’s easy to forget that those older than us are just as in need of our leadership as those younger than us. None of us are ever done learning and improving – and it is the leader’s job to push those around them to be better, and empower everyone on their team to do more than they could, or would, do on their own. This is true whatever your age or the age of the people you lead.
- Listen with the intent of learning something. Authority is not something any of us achieves just because we have a title. True authority – the kind that comes from respect – must be earned. This is especially true when leading those with more experience than you. Watch for their strengths as well as the areas in which they need to improve. Listen to the types of questions they ask and how they interact with other staff members. They’ve been in the workplace longer than you and have likely picked up some valuable skills about how to interact with people and get things done. Acknowledge the lessons they’ve learned by asking their opinion and applying what they teach. Respect their own professional development by looking for areas where your input can make a real difference in their standing and career path.
- Get to know them as a person – not just an employee. It can be tempting to pay more attention to the personal lives of your younger staff members simply because they tend to volunteer more information and seem to have more “personal life” to deal with. This is a generalization of course, and simply won’t apply in every situation. But many people, as they get older, just don’t feel the need to share as much about their personal lives as younger people do. They’ve learned to roll with the punches. They’ve learned that they aren’t the center of the universe. They don’t care as much about what people think.
This doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the time investment it takes to get to know them on a personal level every bit as much as your young staff members. Almost all of us respond better, and will work harder, for people who actually care about us. It’s difficult to respect those who never appear to have the time, or inclination, to give us the time of day, or who don’t appear to be at all interested in what’s most important to us. For older staff members, this can come across as a know-it-all attitude, breeding resentment and push-back rather than cooperation. Your older staff members might be dealing with things you have no personal experience with. They likely have different values than you, resulting in different priorities and different motivators. Trying to understand their perspective will go a long way to breaking down potential barriers and building a more transparent relationship based on trust and respect.
- Blend the old with the new. Forward-thinking, visionary, creative, inventive, an out-of-the-box thinker… these are all great traits for a leader to embody. They are not an excuse to throw out the way things have been done in the past.
If a particular way of doing something has survived for a while, there is probably a good reason for it. Be strategic about blending the old with the new. If an older staff member has generated a remarkable amount of new members by picking up the phone, getting out into the community and talking with people face to face, and shows no interest in digital forms of communication (such as social media), think long and hard about how important it is to “move them into the 21st century.”
In many situations, it might behoove younger staff members to learn more traditional ways of conducting business and incorporate those lessons into today’s technology driven world. On the other hand, older staff members might need you to give them a push towards change. Few of us really like change, after all. For staff member clinging to traditions that are no longer serving anyone, they might need you to help them embrace the new and improved. When this is the case, recognize that the best solutions often involve retaining the core reasons behind why something has worked well in the past and using modern tools, systems and ideas to do it more effectively.
Here’s the bottom line – if you are a young leader, having older people on your team is a tremendous advantage. They are likely some of the most loyal, hard-working, dedicated people in your circle of influence. The lessons they can teach, and the humility in knowing that you are surrounded by people wiser than you, will make you a better leader.