The Four Things Young Leaders Must Do to Effectively Lead Older Generations


When I first became a department manager at 25 years old, everyone on my staff was at least 10 years older than me.   Thankfully, my parents taught me as a young boy how to effectively communicate with older people.  The first 15 years of my career I was faced with leading older generations.  How could I earn the respect and get “buy-in” from those who didn’t always enjoy getting direction from a leader who was (in some cases) as old as their own children?    Managing older generations at work requires patience, the ability to listen carefully, and the knowledge that you must learn the old ways of doing things before you can apply your new ideas.

As a young leader – be mindful that your older colleagues have seen your youthful enthusiasm before.   Older generations in the workplace have typically “heard it all before” and in many cases may even want you to fail.    Additionally – be prepared for the envy that ensues as many of your older colleagues may feel threatened by you and / or cheated for not being considered for the leadership position you are in.   This is why young managers must become good leaders quickly.   At times, you may need to throw your authority out the door:  eliminate the hierarchy, become just another member of the team,   and help get things done.   Build relationships, earn trust and allow your leadership to rise organically.   In the end, your ultimate leadership role is to protect your team and get them recognized in new ways.   This is where your youthful creativity must come into play.

Older generations want you to respect their ideas and ideals.   They want to know that you have their backs and that you can exercise your influence to get them a voice at the table while making their jobs much more meaningful and purposeful.

Make sure this happens right away – because your initial 90 days on the job is where you are being tested and evaluated by your older peers.  They have a scorecard – and in order to score high, ask the right questions, work the extra hours, and carefully evaluate their work and past performance in the organization.   Educate yourself about their journeys.    Know who you are leading and never take for granted that your older colleagues will do what you say just because you are the boss.   It’s not that easy.

In fact, they may make your job more difficult until you earn their respect; that is, until they believe that you are qualified to be their leader and are working for the best interests of the team.   The truth is that they have much more influence and power at the beginning of your tenure than you do.  Why? Because they bring with them a history of organizational relationships that carry more weight and influence.

As you embark upon your role as a young leader to older colleagues, the following four things are mandatory to get you started on the right track:

1.      Be an Active Listener and Learner

Since you are still learning to be a leader – be an active listener and learn from your older peers.   Authority must be earned and thus it is important that you keenly observe how your older colleagues operate.  Identify their strengths, personality traits and areas that could use refinement.    Listen to the types of questions they ask in meetings.    Do they take notes?  Is their follow-up good?  Always be mindful of what you can specifically learn from each member of the team.  Be certain to acknowledge   the lessons learned from your older colleagues by applying what they have taught you.  Additionally, make sure that you identify the areas for improvement where your input can make an immediate difference in their performance.

2.     Get to Know Them on a Personal Level

Though it may be difficult in certain workplace cultures, as a young leader you must invest your time to get to know the members of your team on a personal level.   For example,   I remember when I inherited a new department as part of my management responsibilities, when I was just 26 years old.   My ten new staff members (teammates) were much older, married and had children who ranged between the ages of 15 – 17 years old.   I dedicated three months to make a genuine effort to get to know them personally.    As such, I began to take them out to dinner, attended their children’s high school basketball games and – in one instance – even attended a counseling session with one of the kid’s teachers.  When I inherited this group of older colleagues, I learned that they had worked for a younger leader in the past who never gave them the time of day, nor did they seem to care about what mattered most to them – their families.    These were loyal company employees who were grateful for their jobs, but they didn’t respect the senior leadership team.

For them, they initially thought I was going to be another young know-it-all leader – that based on their past experiences was going to be a difficult situation to handle. Therefore, I needed to “step up my game” and thus made a serious investment/commitment.    I did this not only for the company, but more so as a means to understand them as people and as parents.  If their families mattered most to them, I had to get to know what that meant from their perspective so that I could learn how to most effectively and authentically lead them and help them to be more successful than ever before.

Getting to know your team breaks down potential barriers and also allows your older colleagues to get to know you.    Be transparent and show them who you really are.   It works both ways and remember that this will make them curious about who you are and what matters to you.   Just be yourself and have an open door policy.  Don’t exercise the authority of your title unless it is absolutely required.   Keep it simple; create an environment that is engaging, warm and non-threatening. 

3.     Blend Old and New Ways (Embrace Differences)

Make the transition of thought easier for your older colleagues to accept.   Be strategic in blending your new ways of thinking with their current ways.  Remember that your job is to help make them more successful and this requires you to help them continuously learn and grow.   Be a good leader, not an entitlement hound.    Be respectful of how they think and get creative in helping the older generations understand why your new ways of thinking make sense.   Take your time, give them examples – learn how to earn buy-in.

Traditions matter to the older generations.    Be mindful of this not just for your older colleagues, but for the good of the organization you are serving.   I remember how eager I was to introduce new ideas and reinvent the older ways of thinking.   I failed many times at first because I didn’t pay enough attention to the historical dynamics that existed within the organization and between its people.    I wasn’t mindful enough of the traditions that were embedded in the company’s culture and how people applied them to their work.

4.      Earn Respect by Being Less Authoritative

Respect takes time to earn and should not be forced.   Don’t demand or command.   Become part of the team.   Take responsibility for your actions and learn to hold yourself accountable.  Being the new young boss does not grant you special privileges.     As a young executive, I never abused my power.  In fact, my staff worked with my personal assistant more than I did.   I wanted to ensure that any “perceived” privileges that I had were shared with the team.

It’s important that your old colleagues see that you are being respectful within your role.   They want to know that your intentions are pure, honest and true.  Learn to care more about your team and less about your power.

As a young leader, embrace generational differences and be a good student.    Older generations have the wisdom that younger generations are still acquiring.   Care about your duty, be grateful for the opportunity and set-forth a foundation based on trust, teamwork, integrity and transparency.

As Jon Gray, Vice President, North America ofHomeAway, Inc. said when he shared his thoughts about managing people who are older than you: “Managers should legitimately care about each person he or she manages. If you invest your time, effort, and energy in helping people, they will be able to develop personally and professionally. You’ll also be tuned in to their goals and aspirations. As a result, employees are happier and better at their jobs.”

And: “Just because you’re taught to avoid emotional decisions on the job doesn’t mean you can’t have an emotional connection with people in the office. After all, you’re human.”