Direct Marketing Article
Managing Up the Age Ladder
Adapted from their new book, "Generations, Inc."
By Larry and Meagan Johnson
Nearly all managers must oversee people older than they are. If you are a
Gen Xer or Gen Yer with Baby Boomers to manage, your success, to a large
degree, is tied to how well they perform. How does a manager in her 20s,
30s, or 40s deal effectively with someone old enough to be her father or
Here are seven strategies:
Respect their experience. Acknowledge older employees' experience by
asking for advice. All of us like to think we have value. To a Boomer, much
of that value comes from having decades of experience. Be careful, however,
not to come across as pandering. Most people can tell when a manager is
saying something she doesn't really mean. Focus on the work, and ask
legitimate questions that acknowledge the older person's experience.
Give them room without abandoning them. Most Baby Boomers are at a
point in their careers where they don't need much direct supervision.
However, for the young manager/older employee relationship, it's important
to have a frank conversation about boundaries and communication requirements
early in your relationship, because the potential for misunderstanding and
hurt feelings is so much greater when the age difference is reversed. For
example, how often, and in what manner, do you expect him to inform you
about day-to-day events? How do you want him to do so? Phone? Email?
Twitter? At what point do you expect him to involve you in a problem? Make
sure he knows you won't micromanage or stand in the way of getting his job
Prove yourself through performance. Accept the reality that, for a
while, you will be perceived as "just a kid." You will gain respect by your
performance. For example, a brilliant young software engineer we know was
promoted to lead a team of senior scientists because they were working with
advanced systems in which he had expertise. When a disagreement would arise
about how to handle a problem with the system, he made it a practice to ask
for their opinions first. If their solutions seemed right to him, he'd say
something like, "Great, that makes sense to me." If he disagreed, he would
often make a comment like, "I'm the one with the least experience, but I
have an idea. What do you think about.… In your experience, do you think
that would work?" and then present his case. As the Boomers got to know him
and trust that he really understood what he was talking about, he was able
to drop the disqualifiers and engage with them as equals.
Practice "Radar O'Reilly management." If you ever saw the television
series M*A*S*H, you probably remember Radar O'Reilly, the cute, naïve
company clerk and bugler. His real job, however, was to get the surgeons and
nurses what they needed to do their jobs well. If they needed scalpels, he
tracked them down and delivered them. If they needed a generator but none
was available, he'd wheel and deal with clerks from other companies to score
one. As a manager of people older than yourself, you want their perception
to be that you are doing a great job for them. This is especially true when
they observe how you deal with the "suits" upstairs. If you do this well and
get them what they need to do their jobs well, their respect for you will
Motivate them on their terms. What motivates people is highly
individualistic, especially for Baby Boomers who have lived long enough to
have a wealth of experiences. In choosing special awards or incentives for
them, you might consider increased contributions to a 401k, flexible
schedules so they can start developing postretirement interests, and
opportunities to be recognized and applauded for their achievements.
However, that doesn't mean all Boomers will want those things. The obvious
step is to ask the Boomer "How can I reward you for your terrific work?"
Arrange for recognition and credit. Like any generation, Baby Boomers
like to be recognized for their achievements. To the degree you can make
that happen, you will reap the rewards of their loyalty. You must be
careful, however, not to sound fawning. The chances of this happening are
directly proportional to the difference in your ages. If you are more than
10 years younger than the Baby Boomer you are praising, see if you can
enlist the help of another Boomer from whom the praise will carry more
meaning. For example, during a team meeting, Judy, the Gen Y team leader,
said to Jack, the Baby Boomer, "Bill was telling me about what you did on
the Anderson account, right Bill?" At that point, Bill made a comment
supporting Jack's abilities. It gave Jack a double dose of praise, and it
built Judy's credibility because she: (1) did her homework and (2) proved
she's willing to give credit where credit is due.
Forge alliances with your veteran sergeants. All great leaders
surround themselves with advisers who may have wisdom in areas they lack.
Making an ally of a Baby Boomer who holds the respect of the team will do
the same for you. It will enhance your credibility with the entire team and
give you support when things get rough. Best of all, the Baby Boomer with
whom you build this adviser/advisee relationship will tend to feel more
vested in your success and in the success of the group.
About the Authors:
Larry and Meagan Johnson, a father-daughter team, are the Johnson Training
whose clients include several government agencies, American Express,
Harley-Davidson, Nordstrom, Dairy Queen, and many others. They are leading
experts on managing multigenerational workplaces, and are coauthors of
Generations, Inc.: From Boomers to Linksters—Managing the Friction Between
Generations at Work (Amacom, 2010).