Leading employees who are older and more experienced can be a challenge but not if you master the art of engaging employees.
A Young Factory Manager
At 32 years old I was promoted to plant manager, although I had never run a manufacturing plant in my life. After I left the Navy, I spent five years working for ABB, a global engineering company, as a design engineer, a quality manager, and an engineering manager. I had never worked in manufacturing or production, yet my boss at the time felt that I had the leadership skills to take on the responsibility of leading an important manufacturing plant in our division.
Upon arriving at this manufacturing operation, I soon realized there was a lot to do. There were quality problems that needed to be fixed, cost challenges that needed to be addressed, and morale issues to be confronted. I was concerned I might be in over my head. I was the youngest manager this plant had ever had, and I didn’t want to fail.
What made it more intimidating was that the managers and workforce at this facility were all older and more experienced than I was. They knew far more than I did about how to run the plant. My challenge was to figure out how to lead this operation effectively while not knowing as much as my team.
The Age and Experience Gap
Many leaders find themselves in situations like this. They’re surrounded by people who are older and more experienced after a promotion or a job change. It’s easy to become intimidated. Leading employees who are older and more experienced can be a challenge. Many leaders make the mistake of trying to appear knowledgeable, to fake it, but it doesn’t work on experienced employees.
The truth is that inexperienced leaders don’t need to have all the answers to be successful but they need to be excellent at working with their team. Fortunately, my past had prepared me well for leading in a situation like this. Even though I didn’t have extensive manufacturing knowledge, I had previously led people who were older and more experienced than I was during my time in the Navy.
As a young junior officer fresh out of submarine school, I was assigned the reactor controls department on the USS Tennessee, where I led a team of veteran sailors who were deeply talented and experienced. Despite my inexperience, I became an effective leader by learning, observing, listening, and engaging with my team. I took a humble approach and treated the skilled sailors with the respect they deserved. That prior experience prepared me well for my role as a 32-year-old plant manager.
Becoming an Effective Leader
Here are some of the things you can do to become an effective leader when you are young and inexperienced. They worked for me both in the Navy and at this manufacturing plant:
Listening. Probably the most important thing you need to do as a young or inexperienced leader is to listen to your team. Be curious. Listen to what’s working and what’s not. Ask good questions and engage your experienced employees in helping to find solutions.
Respect. It is extremely important to demonstrate respect for your new team. They will see you as an inexperienced leader so don’t pretend you’re an expert. It’s alright to ask questions and defer to their expertise to help solve problems in areas where you lack proficiency.
Seek feedback. Talk to key leaders and employees and seek feedback. If you have a potential solution to a problem, run it by some of the experienced people and listen to their comments. Ask your employees if this has been tried before? Has it worked or failed? What did the previous managers get wrong? How can you do it differently? Engage and seek feedback from your team and you will avoid the pitfalls of going headlong into an activity that’s doomed to fail.
Experiment. Try incremental actions and look at the results. I like to start small and observe the response of the team. Do they get excited about this new initiative? Is this something you can build on? Who were the naysayers? Who were the cheerleaders? Experimenting can help you discover what’s going to work and what isn’t.
Learn. Continue to be curious and seek knowledge. Read about the issues affecting your industry. Understand the norms and standards. Study the products and services you’re providing. Become knowledgeable in your new role. As your employees see you gain understanding, they’ll increase their respect for you.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is leading employees who are older and more experienced can be a challenge. You may be well outside your comfort zone, but that just means you need to be more engaged, active, and involved with your employees. Use these five actions to work with experienced employees to find the best way to improve the organization. Find out who your naysayers are, discover your cheerleaders, and uncover the opinion leaders in the group. Continue to grow and gain knowledge to earn respect. In the end, you’ll find you can be very successful even though you don’t have all the answers.
How about you? Have you had a similar experience? Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know what you did to overcome the age and experience gap.
Learn more in my new book, I have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following.
4 thoughts on “Leading Employees Who are Older and More Experienced”
Jon, thank you for broaching this delicate but important topic. You summed the entire methodology up in the phrase, “I took the humble approach and treated the skilled sailors with the respect they deserve.” Respect, no matter the age or experience, is what employees want.
Hi Andrew. I couldn’t agree more. Respect for employees always needs to be first.
This is a fact – how do I know? Because I was there. “As a young junior officer fresh out of submarine school, I was assigned the reactor controls department on the USS Tennessee, where I led a team of veteran sailors who were deeply talented and experienced. Despite my inexperience, I became an effective leader by learning, observing, listening, and engaging with my team.”
Hi Michael. Yes, you were! And we were a lot younger then! Thanks for stopping by