How to Manage People Older Than You
When I first moved to Boston, I remember occasionally visiting a fast food joint with my infant son. We were regularly served by a woman in her 70s with clearly artificially bright red hair. If anything inspired me to create wealth, it was she. The specter of dishing out burgers in my old age terrified me. Nobody, I remember thinking, wants to spend her golden years working in the golden arches.
But many more of us will be working into our 70s. The Wall Street Journal recently noted that the number of people older than 65 who are still working is up 20% from 2008--even while employment overall is down. In part, this is because they can; people are living longer and healthier than ever. And, in part, it is because they need to; failure to save--on a personal and a national level--coupled with low yields on investments make retirement financially elusive for many.
This also means that, as leaders, you will increasingly manage people older than you are. Doing so successfully requires recognizing several things:
1. Generations differ.
We are all shaped by key events, social trends, and attitudes. Baby boomers aren't as dazzled by speed and multitasking as Gen X or Millenials (those born after 1981) but neither are they as demanding of feedback. Every generation has strengths and weaknesses and excellent bosses appreciate the differences.
2. Experience counts.
It's seductive to imagine that technology changes everything and that new businesses are completely new frontiers. But most business issues, from cash flow to strategic positioning to alliances, are perennial and highly-experienced employees have a lot of insight into what does, and doesn't, work. Don't discount experience just because it isn't yours.
3. Older people aren't tired.
I've talked to lots of employees in their 60s who love their work. They aren't staying on because they have to; they're committed, enthusiastic, and energetic. What they don't like is the assumption that they're not.
4. Age diversity can be as tricky as gender diversity.
But it can be just as valuable too. Realize the value inherent in experience and give more seasoned employees the opportunity to mentor younger ones. The concatenation of old and new insights can be productive and innovative if everyone counts.
5. Social cohesion is a strength.
Employees aren't really loyal to companies but to each other. To the degree that the relationships between younger and older employees are strengthened, the whole company becomes more secure. This way, experience doesn't walk out the door, learning doesn't vanish. It's a very neat trick if you can pull it off.
Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2014, she published her fourth book, A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition.