Climbing The Ladder

How I Deal With Being The Boss Of People My Father’s Age

By | Wednesday, July 13, 2016


Leadership skills have always come naturally to me and, honestly, I prefer to be in a position where I can steer the team. I was the bossy little girl in the sandbox managing castle construction; I was the person you probably hated getting paired with for group projects in school; I was the overly-enthusiastic president of my senior class. Even as a lowly, entry-level newbie in the working world, I managed to find opportunities to influence my team and lead. Whether I was planning our holiday parties or volunteering to represent my group on a corporate committee, I found ways to flex my need to lead.

My managerial might did not go unnoticed while I applied myself full-tilt in the industry that I’m passionate about. I recently took a significant promotion. So now, here I am: 25 years old and sitting on the executive team of an organization. My peers are all mid-to-late career executives in their 40s, 50s, and even 60s; each of them has a lifetime’s worth of institutional knowledge — not a millennial in sight. While I thought that learning to work alongside (and keep up with) colleagues so far advanced in their careers would be the challenge, I’ve found that, by far, the most difficult part has been managing the Gen Xers and Baby Boomers who now report to me: the heel-biting, hell-raising 25 year old.

“Trial by fire” perfectly describes these last few months of learning to manage those who are older and, frankly, more experienced than I am. Because management requires you to deal with so many different personalities, there is no one-size-fits-all policy to dictate your leadership style; that said, my personal successes and failures have provided me with a solid foundation on which to grow my communication skills a leader and colleague amongst my multi-generational teammates. I want to share the overarching strategies that, in my experience, are the most fire-proof ways to handle your team at work.

1. Value your colleagues.

Regardless of my age, I was an outsider to the industry and to the organization and needed to learn the biz quickly. Many of my colleagues and team members had been with the organization for over 15 years and had institutional knowledge out the wazoo — they became my resource network, my library. Many times, employers bring younger leadership into their organization to implement change and bring fresh ideas, but don’t overlook or underestimate the status quo. Many of your colleagues have upheld it for years. Change is hard for everyone, especially when it comes from the mouths of babes like me; I’m literally the age of most of my colleagues’ children. So, listen to what they have to say. Not only will you learn more about the business, but hopefully you’ll learn a bit about your colleagues as well.

2. Demand respect, not approval.

I’ll be the first to admit that I like to be liked. Looking back, the hardest part about starting this new job was realizing — on day one — that people didn’t inherently like me. For some people, my age was an immediate turn-off; for others, my role and responsibilities were a source of envy. But now, I know: I don’t need these people to be my friends. I need them to respect me, my credibility, my authority, and my decisions. And despite being so young in comparison, I am qualified for this job. I am credible. I am a boss-ass bitch (meet my new personal mantra). And so instead of approval, I work towards respect and use every opportunity I’m given to let my work speak for itself.

3. Adapt your communication style.

This is honestly the best managerial advice I could dish out. Not everyone communicates in the same way, and I learned that this was especially true when trying to bridge the generation gap. The way that I communicated praise, delegated tasks, or accepted or offered help was not being understood. I’m pretty that I was coming off as a smug know-it-all — a portrait of myself that I never intended to paint. Do not follow in my footsteps!

As a leader, it’s important that your message is understood by your teammates; therefore, it’s necessary to take the time to acknowledge your audience and envision how your message will be perceived. Gen Xers communicate in a very different way than millennials! For example, I’ve found that Gen Xers like explicit instructions where millennials prefer less direction — neither style is wrong, they’re just different. Some people operate better through emails, while others prefer in-person communication. As a young leader, you should adapt how you communicate to match how your teammates best receive communication.

4. Don’t ignore the generation gap.

The generation gap is not going to go away, so don’t act like it doesn’t exist; it  always will. Most of my colleagues are in a very different phase of their life than I am. I don’t have kids, I’m not married, I definitely don’t have grandkids…I don’t even have a pet. My responsibilities outside of work are limited, but that is not the case for nearly everyone else that I work with. I try my best to understand their place in life, their priorities, and their family responsibilities, which, in my opinion, trump work responsibilities every time. I want my team to feel comfortable talking to me about their personal lives so that we can best adapt their work life to meet their needs.

Furthermore, based on their stations in life, the generation gap can provide insight into how my teammates view their jobs and their career goals. I have a few colleagues who are nearing retirement; these folks are not necessarily motivated by career advancement, because they’re prioritizing finishing their careers. Having this information allows me to better manage my team and appeal to their needs, regardless of their career statuses and professional priorities.

Overall, try to balance your shows of strength (assertively delegating tasks with confidence and clarity) with your shows of empathy and interest (making sure your team members know that you respect them as individuals and family people). And find your own boss-ass bitch mantra!

*Norah prefers to use a pen name.

Image via Picjumbo

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