Jon Gray, 30, was the third employee of publicly traded HomeAway, an online vacation rental marketplace, when it was founded in 2004. From the very beginning, when he was a marketing analyst, to his current role as senior vice president of the Americas, he has mostly managed people older than him. His direct reports have ranged in age from their early 20s to their mid 50s.
Like any good manager, Gray’s approach has been to disregard age and instead focus on what each individual brings to the table and how well they are achieving their goals. However, his age has sometimes been an issue for his people.
When Gray was 24, for example, the company hired a business analyst in his 30s to work under him. In their second meeting, Gray was discussing the analyst’s career goals when he came right out and said what many in this situation are likely thinking: “It feels very strange to be working for someone younger than me,” the analyst said.
“I told him that I understood where he was coming from, and I wanted him to trust me and give it a try,” Gray recalls. “His worry was that young people would be inconsistent. We ended up having a good working relationship because over time he was able to see that I had the ability to do my job, hear my consistent guidance, and I was even able to teach him a few things.”
Young managers who are tasked with guiding people older than themselves often deal with direct reports who question their competence or ability to lead, at the same time as they are coping with their own self-doubt. But in order to do their jobs successfully, they must gain the trust and respect of their employees and confidently navigate the situation.
Below, management experts weigh in on how young managers can find that balance.
Interview your direct reports to learn more about them.
Because they feel pressure to prove themselves, young managers often make the mistake of relying only on themselves to make decisions when the older employees they manage may know more than they do, says Sherry Moss, a professor of organizational studies at the Wake Forest University School of Business in Winston-Salem, N.C. Instead of flying solo, she advises managers to interview each of their direct reports, asking them to describe their daily routines, challenges, and what they think would make the department better. “You should not default to making all decisions in isolation, but instead, collaborate with employees,” Moss says.
Page 2 of 3 - Treat each employee as an expert, and ask how you can help.
The primary responsibility of a manager is to set expectations and hold employees accountable. While they may not always be the subject matter expert, the young manager should respect the employee’s expertise and help enable their success, says Cheryl Eaton, a management professor at Marlboro College Graduate School in Marlboro, Vt. One of the best ways to do that is ask how you can help them do their jobs better. “Listen rather than assuming you know best,” she says. “When that kind of respect is given, it is received.”
Don’t be afraid to be the boss.
While collaborating with your team is great, you can’t be a pushover. “Confront issues, establish expectations, and hold people accountable,” says Doug Brown, who manages the online MBA program at Post University in Waterbury, Conn. However, being the boss does not make you infallible, so when you make mistakes, address them in the way you’d want your team to handle their own. “If you blame others or make excuses, you give them a license to do the same,” he says. “Older workers are especially alert for younger managers who do not accept responsibility for their decisions.”
Portray confidence and openness simultaneously.
Young managers are more likely to face doubts about their competence, so need to work harder to portray confidence but not overdo it with unnecessary displays of authority just to show who’s in charge. “Your job is to display a level of confidence in your decision-making capability while at the same time taking in their knowledge and input,” says business coach Kevin Weir of ActionCoach.com. “Your level of confidence in yourself will go a long way toward helping you establish your authority. Being hesitant and nervous on an on-going basis is a sure-fire way to kill your authority and respect with your older employees.”
Show your reports that you care about them.
“You should legitimately, personally care about each individual you manage,” says HomeAway’s Gray. When you do, pretty much everything else takes care of itself. You’re more likely to seek consensus, empower them to succeed, correct their bad habits in private, and praise their good work in public. “Their biggest fear is that you’re going to be against them,” he says. “You have to alleviate that fear early and show them you’re on their side.”
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