Women already have enough trouble being taken seriously at work. But what if you’re a younger woman who manages employees that are decades her senior? That’s an entirely new challenge with serious positives and negatives.
How Do You Manage a Team That Is Significantly Older Than You?
When it comes to managing team members who are significantly older, there are a few women leading the pack. Mindy Green, who works as a manager at a large insurance company, has spent the past few years learning how to successfully manage older employees.
“At the company I currently work for, I supervise people who have been at the company 20+ years and, in theory, could be my parents,” Green said. “I created such controversy in my department. Half the people hated me.”
When Green moved to a management position and was placed on a leadership development track, Green’s peers became incredibly jealous. “The transition was challenging,” Green said. “Imagine walking into work every day and trying to be professional and cordial to people who hated you because they thought it should have been them.”
Despite the setbacks imposed by her colleagues, Green was able to remain professional and create strong relationships with her team. By shifting her management style and remaining proactive when communicating, Green found success.
“I knew I had a job to do and a goal for my future,” Green said. “If I didn’t have the skills, I wouldn’t have lasted in a leadership role.”
Wendy Kirwan, Director of Public Relations at Kars4Kids, felt similar pressures when she began to manage a team. Like Green, she used strong communication skills and showed her older colleagues respect to further her management style.
“I don’t try to impose ‘my way,’” Kirwan said. “While I take my management seriously, I give people space and respect their expertise and experience. They, in turn, are highly respectful and willing to defer to management.”
Similar to Green, Kirwan was proactive about getting to know her team. When Kirwan assumed her first management position, she was the youngest person on her team. Kirwan has been open about her age, and has fortunately not seen much pushback from her colleagues.
“The starkest contrast was our writer/blogger who is at least twice my age,” Kirwan said. “I hosted her for dinner and it made a big difference in our relationship. I respect her and the life experience she brings to the table and she seems to reciprocate.”
Green very much agreed.
“I like to learn from other people’s experience,” Green said in agreement. “Show them that you do respect their experience and expertise, and let them know they are valuable to you and the team.”
Though Green and Kirwan’s experiences have ended in success, there were additional hurdles to managing older employees as a younger individual. Here are some of the strategies they used to succeed as a manager at work.
3 Strategies to Managing an Older Team
1. Take Advantage of Human Resources
When Green was put onto the leadership development track, she relied on HR to get accurate feedback from her team. This way, Green knew what challenges she would face ahead of time and could begin to proactively create solutions.
“After I got promoted, what helped me was having support from my boss and peers,” Green said. “I also asked HR to do a Q&A with my team to find out what their concerns were about a new boss, what did they want to know about me and what did I think I should know about them. That did help them understand that I did care about how they felt.”
2. Recognize That Age Differences Can Lead to Operational Differences
When managing older employees, both Kirwan and Green acknowledge that there are unique challenges. “Some team members within a few years of retirement aren’t as motivated,” Green said, when discussing struggles in managing older team members. “It’s a challenge to help them understand that they might not make it to retirement if they don’t do their job in the interim.”
In Kirwan’s case, managing a telemarketer who is also a great-grandmother isn’t that different from managing an editor who is a couple years out of high school. “I really try not to make age a factor at all,” Kirwan said. “By and large, it’s worked.”
3. Take the Higher Road
Remember Green’s story about the individuals that were jealous of her promotion? She has worked with them since, and has continued to take the higher road to success. “One of the managers who had some bad things to say about me is my peer now,” Green explained. “I didn’t confront him. At some point, they need to look at the man/woman in the mirror and admit that they are the reason they didn’t advance, not me.”
Green and Kirwan’s experiences show that managing older employees can be difficult, but if you’re able to succeed, it’s a big win for your personal and professional growth.
“I know it can be tough, but take your time,” Green said. “Eventually, your sparkling personality will win them over.”