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Managing Up the Age Ladder

By: Meagan Johnson and Larry Johnson
Last updated 8/5/2010

Many managers must oversee people older than themselves. If you are a Gen Xer or Gen Yer with Baby Boomers to manage, your success, to a large degree, is tied to how well they perform. How does a manager in her 20s, 30s, or 40s deal effectively with someone old enough to be her father or grandfather?

Here are seven strategies:

1. Respect their experience. Acknowledge older employees' experience by asking for advice. All of us like to think we have value. To a Boomer, much of that value comes from having decades of experience. Be careful, however, not to come across as pandering. Most people can tell when a manager is saying something she doesn't really mean. Focus on the work. Ask legitimate questions that acknowledge the older person's experience.

2. Give them freedom without abandoning them. Most Baby Boomers are at a point in their careers where they don't need much direct supervision. However, for the young manager/older employee relationship, it's important to have a frank conversation about boundaries and communication requirements early on, because the potential for misunderstanding and hurt feelings is so much greater when the age difference is reversed. For example, how often, and in what manner, do you expect an employee to inform you about day-to-day events? How do you want him to communicate? Phone? E-mail? Twitter? At what point do you expect him to involve you in a problem? Make sure he knows you won't micromanage or interfere with his getting his job done.

3. Prove yourself through performance. Accept the reality that, for a while, you will be perceived as "just a kid." You will gain respect through your performance. For example, a brilliant young software engineer we know was promoted to lead a team of senior scientists because they were working with advanced systems in which he had expertise. When a disagreement would arise about how to handle a problem with the system, he made it a practice to ask for their opinions first. If their solutions seemed right to him, he'd say something like, "Great, that makes sense to me." If he disagreed, he would often make a comment like, "I'm the one with the least experience, but I have an idea. What do you think about…In your experience, do you think that would work?" and then present his case. As the Boomers got to know him and trust his knowledge, he was able to drop the qualifiers and engage with them as equals.

4. Practice "Radar O'Reilly management." If you ever saw the television series M*A*S*H, you probably remember Radar O'Reilly, the cute, naïve company clerk and bugler. His real job, however, was to get the surgeons and nurses what they needed to do their jobs well. If they needed scalpels, he tracked them down and delivered them. If they needed a generator but none was available, he'd wheel and deal with clerks from other companies to score one. As a manager of people older than yourself, you want their perception to be that you are doing a great job for them. This is especially true when they observe how you deal with the "suits" upstairs. If you do this well and get them what they need to do their jobs well, their respect for you will climb.

5. Motivate them on their terms. What motivates people is highly individualistic, especially for Baby Boomers who have lived long enough to have a wealth of experiences. In choosing special awards or incentives for them, you might consider increased contributions to a 401k, flexible schedules so they can start developing postretirement interests, and opportunities to be recognized and applauded for their achievements. However, that doesn't mean all Boomers will want those things. The obvious step is to ask, "How can I reward you for your terrific work?"

6. Arrange for recognition and credit. Like any generation, Baby Boomers like to be recognized for their achievements. To the degree you can make that happen, you will reap the rewards of their loyalty. You must be careful, however, not to sound fawning. The chances of this happening are directly proportional to the difference in your ages. If you are more than 10 years younger than the Baby Boomer you are praising, see if you can enlist the help of another Boomer from whom the praise will carry more meaning. For example, during a team meeting, Judy, the Gen Y team leader, said to Jack, the Baby Boomer, "Bill was telling me about what you did on the Anderson account, right Bill?" At that point, Bill made a comment supporting Jack's abilities. It gave Jack a double dose of praise, and it built Judy's credibility because she did her homework and also proved she's willing to give credit where credit is due.

7. Forge alliances with your veteran sergeants. All great leaders surround themselves with advisers who have wisdom in areas where they may be lacking. Making an ally of a Baby Boomer who holds the respect of the team will do the same for you. It will enhance your credibility with the entire team and give you support when things get rough. Best of all, the Baby Boomer with whom you build this adviser/advisee relationship will tend to feel more vested in your success and in the success of the group.

The material in this article has been adapted from Generations, Inc.: From Boomers to Linksters—Managing the Friction Between Generations at Work, published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association (www.amacombooks.org), © 2010.

About the Author(s)

Meagan Johnson and Larry Johnson Meagan Johnson and Larry Johnson, a father-daughter team, are the Johnson Training Group (www.johnsontraininggroup.com), whose clients include several government agencies, American Express, Harley-Davidson, Nordstrom, Dairy Queen, and others. They are co-authors of Generations, Inc.: From Boomers to Linksters—Managing the Friction Between Generations at Work (AMACOM, 2010).