By the year 2020, at least half of the US workforce will be millennials, born between 1981 and 1996. Many of those folks have already stepped into management roles, and many others will soon follow—and this inescapable demographic reality poses a variety of challenges.
For example, what happens If you’re one of these millennial managers, maybe in your first management role, and you find yourself tasked with leading people who are 20 or even 30 years older than you are— people with vastly more experience, some of whom may well feel that they should be managing you? On the flip side, what happens if you’re in your 50s or even your 60s and you suddenly find yourself with a 35 year old manager whom you have a hard time thinking of as anything other than a “kid”?
Based on my own business experience and my experience as a consultant working with very diverse organizations, I’ve found that these three simple principles can go a long way toward taking the tension out of such situations. See what you think.
1. You’ve got to talk about it! Nothing gets in the way of building trust more than not communicating how you feel about a situation. Leaving people to create their own stories around their observations and assumptions is almost certain not to create an environment of open and honest communications.
Early in my career, I worked for Digital Equipment Corporation, at the time one of the largest and fastest growing computer companies in the world. “DEC” believed in putting young people into significant management roles, despite the fact that at that early stage of their careers, these young managers often found themselves way over their heads. The assumption was that they’d figure out how to succeed and get the job done. So there I was, in my mid-20s, suddenly promoted to be the HR Manager for a five-state region based in Minneapolis, a long way from my mentor and the other support resources available at our headquarters back in Massachusetts.
Many of the people I was supposed to lead were indeed much older than I was, and I admit that I wasn’t really sure how to build trust across those age gaps. What helped me succeed was an older person in my group who took the initiative and raised this issue of the age and experience difference. As he began, I tried to brush off the conversation but he wouldn’t let me. He said, “Joe, we have to talk about this because I want you to be successful, not just for your sake but because I only have a few years left in my career, and I want those years to be meaningful for myself and for the company.”
So the conversation began, and eventually I asked him what he needed from a leader and he told me. The most important thing, he said, was to have his experience and opinions valued. He also suggested that I have one-on-one meetings with everyone in the group and ask them the same question—and he stressed that in those conversations, I needed to be open and authentic about the awkwardness that a significant age difference could create. I did my best to follow his advice, and if I could point to just one thing that helped me open up communications and build trust with the people on my team, it would be that advice.
So if you find yourself with direct reports twice your age, talk to those folks about what that age difference might mean—to them and to you. Be open and humble: don’t be afraid to admit to them, and to yourself, that you can learn from all that experience they’ve acquired over the years.
And conversely, if you find yourself with a manager who is decades younger than you are, look for the strengths they bring to the table, and try to help them succeed. One way to do that is to step up and open a conversation about the age difference, if they don’t seem to feel comfortable doing so.
2. Don’t make assumptions about technology. It’s no secret that millennials and baby boomers have grown up in totally different worlds when it comes to technology. That said, if you’re a millennial manager it’s a mistake to make assumptions about what the older people in your organization do and do not know about technology. When you find out—as you very well may— that they are more capable than you think, it could be pretty embarrassing. And if you’re one of those older folks, your best bet is to be open and honest about your technology skills—and if necessary, put your hand up and ask for some training.
3. Don’t ask people how long they want to continue to work. I’ve found that very little is more threatening to an older employee than a young manager, perhaps in total good faith, asking them how many more years they intend to work. But if you’re a young manager, how do you plan for the future without asking that question? Well, if you build trust by following Principles 1 and 2, and if you’re open and honest about your responsibility as a leader to grow talent and build a succession plan for the group, it’s been my experience that people will generally tell you about their own personal plans. Be a little patient, and feel your way into the conversation, and you’ll get there.
And again, on the flip side, if you’ve got a few years on your manager, and you’re thinking about what the future might hold, I would encourage you to be open about your goals and preferences. This too is a case where you’ll certainly want to ease into that conversation, but if you can get there, it can set up a situation where you have the opportunity to share your knowledge and experience and prepare others for a smooth transition. And that will be very rewarding for you and the organization.
So, millennial manager, have you talked with your people about any significant difference in age and experience? And if you’re someone who suddenly finds themselves with a much younger manager, what have you done—what can you do— to make the situation less awkward and more productive?