We grow up in hierarchies: The student with the best grades becomes valedictorian, the fastest swimmer becomes team captain, and the employee with seniority takes their pick of shifts. In a self-described meritocracy, it only seems natural that the person most qualified would be in charge. By extension, we assume that the person in charge is the one most qualified. So what happens when a young, comparatively inexperienced woman takes charge of managing older, more experienced employees?
Scenarios like this are increasingly common. As Sheryl Sandberg wrote in Lean In, instead of climbing a career ladder, we now play in a big career jungle gym. People change jobs frequently, hierarchies are being flattened, and organizations depend increasingly on contractors, freelancers, and specialists who have exceptional skills and no interest in management. This means that, more often than not, the person managing a team is not the one with the most experience, at least in terms of years.
Fortunately, with a simple shift in thinking, young managers can thrive. When I first joined the U.S. Foreign Service, I found myself supervising people many years older than me who had exponentially more professional experience. They taught me how to be a manager without acting like a superior. Here are a few of the best lessons I learned from my older staff:
Adopt a team mentality
As a manager, you are responsible for coordinating the work of others. Position your staff like players on a court. Whenever possible, let them do what they do best, without leaving any one person to do all the dirty work.
Embrace your role as team leader. You can delegate tasks, but you cannot delegate leadership. You must be consistent, objective, and clear about what your shared goals are when managing or the team will fall apart. Put in the extra work to perspective, which will help you offer the feedback, guidance, and training your team needs.
The best way to show respect for the experience of others is to ask your staff for their perspectives, both when you first arrive to the office and regularly thereafter. Listen to their feedback and repeat it back to them to be sure you understand. Even if you choose not to take their advice, they will know that they were heard.
However, have the confidence to find your own answers. Young managers sometimes fall into the trap of listening only to their most senior employees, which can create or exacerbate unhealthy dynamics among the rest of the staff. It is great to have personnel you can trust, but you should verify what you hear. Ultimately, you alone will be held responsible for your decisions.
Create clear guidelines
No one wants to be jerked around by managers who change their minds from one day to the next. Be consistent with your expectations, and put them in writing. That way, if you do have problems with an employee, you can point to a failure in procedure and not make it personal.
It’s also important to be flexible when necessary. I had one employee who was notoriously stubborn. When I asked her to do things my way, they usually fell apart, and I felt sabotaged. When I let her work independently, the end result was outstanding, even if it was not quite what I wanted. I learned to embrace her style and conform my expectations to her abilities. Managers have to adapt to their staff just as much as staff must adapt to their managers. It was a great lesson for me.
Assert your authority
Be confident in the skills that got you to your position. If you constantly make self-deprecating comments, it will only undermine your authority and exacerbate your insecurities. When you make a decision, stand by it. Your team is counting on you to take charge.
Don’t let ego cloud your decision-making. Sometimes, inexperienced managers try too hard to prove their authority by overturning existing processes and treating senior staff as a threat. I know of one case in which a young MBA grad who was put in charge of a growing business marginalized experienced employees. Within 12 months, the company went bankrupt. Insecurity is toxic, but humility will serve you well.
Empower people to do their best work
Older employees need guidance just as much as younger employees do, but they are often overlooked for training and other professional development opportunities. Get to know your staff, give them the resources they need, and recognize them for it. A good manager takes full responsibility for her team’s failures, but shares credit for their success. By taking the time to recognize your staff’s contributions, you build trust among the entire team—including their trust in you.
Have more questions about management? Ask Levo Mentor Sarah Vellozzi, SVP & Partner at FleishmanHillard, for her advice!