To introduce today's topic, allow me start by talking about my very first work experience.
The first time I was promoted to a managerial position, I was 19 years old (lowest mid-management position, mind you).
Everyone in my 10+ strong team was older than me. The youngest was 25, the oldest 55 or more, I cannot remember exactly.
I was dead-scared:
How to deal with them? Why should they listen to what I had to say – they were all much more experienced than I was!
Would they even respect me?
Most of them even trained me when I joined the company six months before – I didn’t know then anything about the industry, its processes, its best practices, etc.
They showed a lot of patience teaching me the ins and outs of the profession (I’m a very slow learner!).
Therefore, why should the same respect me six months later when upper management decided I was good enough to be promoted over colleagues much more experienced than I was?
Why even management considered me – 30+ years of continuous management later I understood why (and now I know it made sense), but I couldn’t get it at the time?!
Thankfully, my parents gave me the best possible education a kid could get:
Because I became a manager very young, the first 10 years of my career I had to manage systematically people much older than me.
I quickly understood that you cannot manage colleagues of the age of your parents – if not older:
After countless try and fail attempts, I found out that most senior colleagues would be reluctant to be managed by a rooky.
On the other hand, if I could prove myself as a leader, they would have no such issue.
This was a time when the leadership theories were not as promoted as they are today.
Nevertheless, thanks to my university majors, I was soon able to grasp the basic concepts and started implementing them - in the most empiric manner!
One of the first barrier I had to overcome was the ‘heard in all before’ attitude.
Today, companies in need of an experienced professional able to lead the necessary changes and overcome strong resistance to change issues and / or wishing to modernize themselves call me for help.
As a common behavior, I am still facing the same comments and attitude from colleagues who are resisting me and even often want me to fail - while I'm often the older chap in the room!
It is still a major problem to overcome, but it is much easier at 50+ years old than it was at 20+!
What’s more, a 20+ years old leader, as you may expect, is not always well perceived:
This is the only wait not to fail.
Young leaders must not be afraid to throw their authority symbols away:
They must appear as being ‘one of the team’, ready to help get things done.
A (young) leader needs to take the time to build relationship – this is not an overnight process -, and therefore allow their leadership grow organically.
At the end of the day, the (young) leader ultimate leadership role is to protect their team and get them recognized in any positive ways possible.
This is where their youthful creativity must come into play.
(I write ‘(young) leader’ with ‘young’ in parenthesis because those advices do not apply exclusively to young leaders, but to everyone who wants to build a positive and long-lasting leadership; it’s only more crucial and challenging to young leaders)
Older generations want their experience, ideas and ideals to be recognized and respected.
They want to be sure that their (young) leader have their backs and that they will exercise their influence to get them a voice at the table, while making their jobs much more meaningful and purposeful.
It must happen as early as possible:
A team usually gives their new boss a maximum of 90 days to prove themselves.
If not, the potential (young) leader will remain nothing more than a manager, and their team will drag their feet to everything that will be asked from them.
To win their team, the (young) leader must show at all times the proper positive attitude, ask the right questions, listen carefully and fairly evaluate the team as a whole – and each of its member – past and present performance.
(Young) leaders need to educate themselves about their professional - and to some extend personal – journeys, understand the team’s dynamics and never take for granted that their teammates will respect and listen to them simply because they are the boss!
In other words, this is not easy!
A (young) leader should never forget one important fact:
Most of their team will make their job difficult until they start respecting their new boss.
Even then, some of their team members will pretend to give them respect while – furtively – they will do all they can to undermine them.
Leaders should not be fooled; they must adapt their attitude according to the goal to achieve (meaning that sometimes they must work with team members who secretly try to jeopardize their effort), while ensuring the team cohesion and high spirits.
(Young) leaders must keep in mind that, at the beginning of their tenure, the lowest ranked team member has more influence and power than they do, as they benefit from strong organizational relationship built over months and years, hence carrying more weight and influence.
To succeed, young leaders must ensure that the following four mandatory behaviors are carefully followed and properly implemented:
Watch, observe, listen and learn
You may have read all leadership related articles found here, or bought self-development or management booked, even followed courses; as a young leader you are still learning.
Remember what we mentioned earlier – your authority doesn’t come naturally (your colleagues may respect the chair you’re sitting on but not you – you want them to respect you as much as your title, if not more, if you want to have a chance to achieve your goals).
Respect is earned; it is never a given.
Never underestimate or disregard even your lower-ranked team members:
They have a lot to teach you.
Watch, listen, observe.
Acknowledge what you learned from your colleagues by applying what they taught you directly or indirectly.
Identify areas where you can help everyone improve their performance so that they can be recognized by higher management and rewarded whenever possible.
Recognize the individual, not only the professional
Teammates are more than that.
They are first and foremost people.
Folks with a family, responsibilities, a personal and professional background, a unique walk of life; people who wish to be recognized for who they are. Entirely.
According to the team and company culture, as well as each person individuality, you may invite them to dinner or to an after-work drink.
Or not! You may simply spend time, during working hours, talking to them.
This is a great way to win a team:
Most (young) leader would be surprised to find out that, most of the time, no former manager – regardless of their age and career – took the time to get to know ‘for real’ their team members.
By doing so, young leaders will break down barriers and also allow everyone in the team to know their new boss – it’s a two-way street.
Again, this is not an easy task, as young leaders must be genuinely interested by the people who are their teammates.
They must care for them.
They must adopt a true ‘open door’ policy, allowing everyone to step in the leader’s office without any previous appointment and always feel welcome.
This allows to develop an environment that is engaging, caring and non-threatening (the young leader will use the authority that comes with the title only in absolute necessity – which should be very rare, as when the team respects its leader they usually never go all they to challenge their authority)
One of the main challenges any new manager faces when they take over from a previous boss is resistance to change; they will often hear “we’ve been doing it this way for years and it was working perfectly well. Why change now?”
Changes must be managed carefully and take all the time required to be successful – it’s a very slow process.
We’re not going to discuss here and now how to overcome resistance to change.
It's an all different and very complicated topic.
But suffice to say that the challenge is much greater to young leaders than it is to seasoned managers.
To succeed, young leaders must be extremely strategic in the way they operate:
As part of listening, learning and knowing their teammates, young leaders must blend ‘old thinking’ with ‘new ways.’
Keeping in mind that young leaders number one target is to help their team members to succeed, they will bring each individual to accept the changes by working on what triggers them.
Leaders will also need to acknowledge the company’s historical culture, as well as their colleagues and team past history – positive and negative.
It is an extremely complex process, yet necessary to succeed.
You’re the boss. No need to show it off
As mentioned earlier, if a (young) leader needs to be authoritative, it means that they are failing:
They did not earn respect from their team.
A successful team leader never demands or commands.
They only need to ask… and take responsibility.
A (young) leader must always take responsibility and hold themselves accountable for whatever their team do – good or bad.
A leader who takes the blame for the wrong towards higher management while promoting their teammates for the right is always highly respected by their team, and therefore will never need to abuse their power.
Finally, being in a managerial position may grant (young) leaders some privileges.
Whenever possible, they must share them with their team; when not possible (for instance being allowed to fly Business Class while the team flies Coach), they should never brag:
It comes with the job, that’s all there is.
What is important is to never give the impression that the (young) leader is superior to the rest of the team.
In other words, (young) leaders must constantly demonstrate, without showing off, that they care more about their team than about their own title and power.
The key words any (young) leader should always keep in mind and constantly implement are:
When asked about leading older people, Jon Gray, Vice President North America of HomeAway said:
“Managers should legitimately care about each person he or she manages. If you invest your time, effort, and energy in helping people, they will be able to develop personally and professionally. You’ll also be tuned in to their goals and aspirations. As a result, employees are happier and better at their jobs.”
As an afterthought, Jon added:
“Just because you’re taught to avoid emotional decisions on the job doesn’t mean you can’t have an emotional connection with people in the office. After all, you’re human.”
A very simple concept so challenging to implement, but so personally rewarding when it succeeds!