Tips for being a good manager of someone older than me
March 25, 2022 9:14 AM   Subscribe

There's recently been a pretty disruptive departure from my organization and I've learned that I'm now going to be managing someone who has been my peer for the last 6 years. He and I have an excellent working relationship, and I think he's great at his job. He's also 15 years old than I am (I'm an elder millennial) and has been with the company 20 years longer than I have. He will be my first direct-report at this organization.

I feel a little awkward about the whole thing, because of the age difference, and the fact that in our previous working relationship, I would often go to him for technical help or other kinds of advice. I don't think he had any expectation that he would have been promoted instead of me (there's an education difference that pretty much precludes that) but emotions are complicated. We are both deep in our feelings about our really excellent manager who left, and I don't want the bummer of that whole situation to get our new relationship off on the wrong foot.
Additionally, none of us were expecting this change to happen any time soon, so I don't have any kind of plan in place for our little team.

So, in advance of our first one-on-one meeting Monday, give me some tips, scripts, anything you think might help. I don't want to go in guns-blazing with some kind of multi-point plan, but I also don't think it'll be a good idea to sit there and say "so, what do you think we should do now?"
posted by juliapangolin to Work & Money (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Hi I have been in this situation. A great deal depends on his feelings about the change, so your first discussion should be about exploring that. It doesn't need to be about you, but about your group/team-- does he see things as improving? What concerns him? What does he prioritize?

I would suggest maybe making the meeting a neutral space (not in your office) and talking to him as a respected peer.

Things that affect this situation:

Is he being fairly paid?
Is allowed to lead on projects/hold a senior role among the rest of the group?
If the answer to either is "no", you need to try to remedy that.

Also, is he close to retirement?
Is he happy with the company overall?
Those will also affect his attitude.

You will not resolve this in one meeting. Don't try to. Check in with him regularly, and make it your goal for him to be supported, respected and treated fairly.
posted by emjaybee at 9:44 AM on March 25, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm an elder millennial with an elder gen xer who reports to me. She came to the company when there was a big disruptive acquisition, she had been in her role for 25+ years, and I had just been promoted to my first manager job. A lot of similarities here I think. Now, she's a very kind person and a really humble hard worker, so I really lucked out in terms of getting someone who was pre-primed to be gracious during the big change, but it's been several years now and she's told me a few times that I'm the best boss she's ever had, so I hopefully have some good advice for you.

1. Be really open about what you don't know, what you're learning, and what you need to work on. Last thing I wanted to do was bustle in like I was suddenly god's gift to management, telling someone who had been in the workforce since I was born how it was gonna be. I also have the privilege of having a really excellent manager myself, and so I often say stuff like "this is how [my manager] structures our 1:1s, so I'd like to continue that process between us." Since you both have the recent experience of having a great manager, please feel free to mirror and copy and adapt. You don't have to invent some new thing if the old thing was working great.

2. Lose your ego. One of the things I hated most, and that held me back in my jobs for years, were bad bosses who didn't want me to grow bigger than them. So I always try to recognize the things my employee is better at than me, or that she's better at than she's been allowed to grow in previously, and encourage those.

3. Don't get comfortable just because this person already knows how to do their job. I think it's real easy when everyone's doing a good job to get lazy about things like weekly checkins but it's really really important to hold that space. Meet regularly anyway and if there's nothing to talk about talk about projects you're working on or that are going on elsewhere in the company that he may not know about yet. He may have ideas to contribute and even if not it's nice for someone with seniority to feel like they're more of an insider. Along these lines, seniority should buy some privileges. Ask if there's anything he works on that he hates, or that he'd rather focus more/less time on, and then see if there are ways you can shift around the responsibilities on your team so that he gets to do more of the things he likes doing.

I think those are the big ones. Don't stop seeing him as a source of technical help or advice. Management is a different skill set, and that's where you'll be out pacing this guy. It is extremely normal for ICs to be more proficient and skilled in certain areas than their bosses, otherwise every CEO out there would be a super genius. My boss comes to me all the time for things I know more about/am better at doing than he is. Don't stop doing this!!
posted by phunniemee at 9:54 AM on March 25, 2022 [13 favorites]

Best answer: I'd start with confronting the situation head on and give him a chance to work through his feels a bit. I wouldn't acknowledge the age difference or tenure so much as acknowledge the abruptness of the situation and the fact that neither of you had much time to prepare. Be prepared if it comes up, though.

Hopefully this is a situation where he is happy being an individual contributor and you were interested in a management path. If I'm happy with my level in the organization it doesn't necessarily matter that my manager is newer and younger, assuming I get the support I need and want.

Don't say "what do you think we should do now" but do make clear that you're open to his input and that a new organizational relationship doesn't mean you have or feel you have all the answers. Being a manager isn't about "I have all the answers" it's about "it's my job to help you and the organization be successful."

Let him know you value your working relationship, you respect his insight and abilities, and nothing about the role change makes that different. Ask how you can support him with the abrupt shift - were there things he depended on from old manager that you need to know about?

If there are any positives to the situation, might be good to try to frame the whole thing around those. If there aren't - and sometimes, there aren't - then don't try to Pollyanna it.

Finally - since this is unexpected, be open that there may be room for improvement. Make sure to create a safe space to voice concerns and adjust as needed.

For those of us with some mileage, the reality is we'll probably have younger bosses eventually. Especially if our aspirations aren't that high up the corporate / organizational ladder. In my job I want to go one or two more rungs up the ladder and that's pretty much it. But I have maybe another 15+ years left in the workforce, more or less. My last manager was probably 10 years younger than I, but she was far better suited for VP-level (and above) work than I am. I'm expecting that at some point my next manager will be even younger than that - as long as I'm respected and given resources I need to do my job, I'm fine with it - and not gunning for corner office type jobs. So let somebody else fight those politics and have those headaches, just let me do my job.
posted by jzb at 9:54 AM on March 25, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Here is a post about managing people older than you. Read Ask a Manager everyday and read her book too!
posted by saturdaymornings at 10:02 AM on March 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I’m going to give you a warning it sounds like you hopefully won’t need: be prepared for there to be a molten vein of misogyny and entitlement under a professional veneer that erupts the first time you have to correct him or address some performance issue. Press on anyway.
posted by kapers at 10:10 AM on March 25, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Background: I'm 53, completely happy that I've settled into technical roles, love when I can let managers do managerial stuff.

You're now a manager. That's not necessarily a technical role. The best manager I've ever worked for knew pretty much nothing about the technical side of things, she just kept track of the items of work that needed to get done, asked us to break down those things into smaller steps, asked where we were on those smaller steps and which of the other team member's smaller steps our smaller steps depended on and vice-versa, and when one of our items was blocked went and found the right people to unblock it, because, collectively, we'd given her that information.

There is no reason you can't continue to go to him for technical help or other kinds of advice. He may still be the company authority on lots of details. And now that you're the manager, he's gonna look to you for prioritization of tasks, and general strategic direction, and to shield him from decisions and information which aren't relevant to how he does his job.

And, yeah, you're right to not go in with "what do you think we should do now?", but you should go in with "our strategic goals, as I understand them, are ..., I don't think these have changed with the shakeup in management. Here are the tactical elements that I see you as best suited to pursue. Does that list match what you think your priorities are, and which of those elements are blocked by forces that I can control?"
posted by straw at 10:44 AM on March 25, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I'm the older person in a somewhat similar situation right now. I've never had any desire to manage people and have consistently made that clear within my organization, so no feels from me about not being the manager of the 3-person team. I am in the role I want to be in, and my professional life is set up just to my liking.

That said, I have to WORK to avoid being annoyed when this person tells me to do things that are standard parts of my job and that I'm obviously going to do. I was with this company doing some version of this work when the younger person graduated from high school. I did this person's (non-management) job and my current job at the same time for more than a year before she was hired.

I know how to do the job.

I don't need to be told "can you please follow up on X" when X is an email that's directly related to something in my portfolio. I'm not talking about instructions on some new method of doing things that came up in a management meeting that I don't know about; I'm talking about basic tasks of doing my everyday job.

I know that this particular person is a bit of a control freak by nature, and I like her and want her to succeed, so I work hard to let it roll off my back. But I can't tell you how many snippy email replies I've written in a word document and erased just to get it out of my system before I explode. I am not a fucking idiot, don't treat me like one!

So ... I would say don't tell the person how to do the job they already know how to do. :)
posted by mccxxiii at 11:40 AM on March 25, 2022 [11 favorites]

Best answer: You don't ask him what he thinks you should do, you ask him what factors/processes/issues you should be aware of and stay aware of as you create plans.

I can trust leadership a lot more if I know they know what I know and they know how much weight to give things.
posted by amtho at 1:56 PM on March 25, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I've been on both ends of this over the years. In general, I have found that it helps to approach the boss role from more of a "hey somebody has to direct traffic, and that's me" perspective than "I'm in charge and you must do what I say." The first one reminds me that it's my job to keep things flowing, and encourages the team to see me as someone who can make their lives easier if we all communicate.

It sounds like you already have a solid and mutually respectful relationship with your colleague and you seem to have solid instincts, so you are well-positioned for success.
posted by rpfields at 10:43 PM on March 25, 2022 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: These are all such terrific helpful answers! Thank you all for taking the time to write them!
posted by juliapangolin at 8:52 AM on March 26, 2022 [2 favorites]

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