At 41, Tom Brady is a decade older than a vast majority of his teammates. As reported in a Washington Post article, roughly 30 of his teammates are closer in age to his 11-year-old son, than to Brady.
It's a position that many leaders now find themselves in as the percentage of millennials in the workforce rises. As of 2016, millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. labor force. By 2025, they will comprise 75 percent of the global workforce.
For Brady, and team leaders alike, this poses a unique challenge. A major responsibility of leadership involves the ability to communicate, relate to, and motivate your team. An age gap that spans decades makes that task increasingly challenging. So, how do you play your primary role as an older, wiser leader yet connect with younger team members?
Brady's advice, captured in a Washington Post article, is to ignore it. Yep, ignore it.
"You know, I don't think about those things. The fact that I'm older just means I've been around a little bit longer. I just feel like I'm doing what I've always done. I really enjoy it, having a great time practicing, playing. It's great being part of a team."
In any other situation, ignoring the issue wouldn't be the best advice. But here's why it works in Brady's case. Let's break down his quote:
He doesn't think about it.
Many leaders over-think the generation gaps within their teams and as a result, treat younger or older employees differently. This special treatment can be viewed as condescending, and invisible barriers go up. In Brady's example, not thinking about it ensures he treats everyone the same and doesn't unintentionally distance himself by seeming too high-and-mighty.
Also, it allows Brady to be himself regardless of the audience. As a fellow millennial, it's important that my manager be authentic, down to earth, and relatable. It's easy for older leaders to self-endow themselves with titles that put a strain on their relationships. For example, a mentor or coach. Don't get me wrong, millennials appreciate both, but there has to be a connection established first.
By not making it more than it is, Brady can quickly get past the age gaps and start the process of interacting with his teammates--my colleague Bill Murphy, covered Brady's now famous introduction. That connection is what leads to mutually respectful relationships.
He's been around a bit longer.
Once relationships are built, millennials are much more open to feedback. We know that we're inexperienced, but don't necessarily want to be told that until we understand the intention behind the advice.
The way Brady describes his experience, "I've been around a bit longer," shows his humility and willingness to create bonds with his teammates before imparting his wisdom. Unless you engage millennials, meet them where they're at and formulate a connection first, advice will be perceived as unsolicited input and judgment.
He focuses on being part of the team.
As an older, more experienced leader it's natural to want to distance yourself from the day-to-day tasks and responsibilities of your team. However, it's in the trenches where managers earn respect and build connections with their employees.
Google found that managers who regularly suited up and worked alongside their employees were more effective at building higher performing teams. In the process, they were able to understand the challenges of the work better and help solve problems based on their experience.
Brady gets it. Going through the same "drills" as the rest of the team sends the message that he's not above the group. It signals that the work is essential, I believe in what we're doing, and I'm here to support your success.
Many leaders struggle to manage millennials because they can't see past the generational differences and fail to find commonalities. Brady's quote is an excellent reminder that a passion for the work and a team mindset is all you need to have in common.