When I first became a manager at the Wall Street Journal, I supervised a veteran reporter who had 20 years seniority on me as a journalist. He was an encyclopedia about how things had been done in years past - but he resisted learning new ways and didn't appreciate having someone as inexperienced as me reviewing his work.
We never found a meeting ground, and I felt relieved when he took early retirement. Yet I wondered if I'd drawn on his expertise as much or as well as I could have. Could I have found a way to show him how much his experience was valued while still helping him grow?It is a question that plagues many managers who oversee older employees. And it is becoming more common as technology and education produce increasing numbers of successful, young entrepreneurs. As young talent ascends the corporate ladder, there is a reversal of traditional age roles in the workplace, with 20- and 30-something bosses supervising workers in their 50s, 60s and older.
This flip-flop isn't without friction. Older employees may dislike taking orders from a manager young enough to be their child. Young bosses often are reluctant to give guidance to employees they don't think are likely to advance further. And it's awkward to criticize, or to mentor, an elder. There's not the same relaxed give-and-take there is with a peer.
"You don't feel quite the same as when you pull aside someone who has a long career ahead of them and say, `Hey, if you do these three things, that will help you get ahead,"' says Debby Hall, a former vice president at Prudential Insurance Co. of America and now a consultant. With an older employee, young bosses don't want to appear overbearing or "create a false expectation that they're grooming someone for something when that isn't the case."
Older workers can compound the tension if they insist they have nothing new to learn or try to compete against a younger boss. Earlier in her career, Hall, now 46, supervised one woman approaching 60 who constantly meddled in the work of other colleagues while letting her own work slide.
The woman's meddling "drove other staffers crazy, while her not getting her own work done drove me crazy," says Hall. She spoke with the woman privately many times, trying to persuade her she could demonstrate her expertise better by finishing her own assignments.
Managers who oversee older employees must respect past accomplishments and be confident they have more to offer in the future. The payoff, in terms of employee contribution, can be great. For one thing, older staffers are "probably going to be in their current jobs longer so it's a waste of talent not to help them improve," says Dee Soder, managing partner of the CEO Perspective Group, a New York consultant.
Those who become managers early in their careers often are the most relaxed about age differences, in large part because they can't afford not to be. When James Ferguson became a manager at the age of 21, he realized he would trigger "conflict right, left and center" if he came on as a young hotshot.