Leading Employees Who are Older and More Experienced

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.

Engaging Employees

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.

Stop Reading and Start Doing

Reading and research are great but they can also keep you from achieving your goals. Sometimes the best way to learn how to do something is to just do it.

A Man of Action

Last week I had the chance to meet an amazing leader, Mike Erwin. If you don’t know Mike, you should. He’s the guy who started one of the most significant and impactful military veteran organization in history, Team RWB. That would be a life’s work for most leaders but not Mike. He used what he learned in creating Team RWB to launch another non-profit organization, The Positivity Project, which trains school children across the country in the importance of positive relationships and character traits. Both of these organizations have impacted the lives of thousands of people in significant ways.

Mike is a man of action. He’s not afraid to turn what he is learning into real, concrete results. He is willing to take the leap and get started knowing he doesn’t have all the answers. Mike understands that, at some point, you need to stop reading and start doing. He recognizes the best way to learn something is by actually doing it.

“We have a world of information at our fingertips. What we need is the wisdom to discern what to do with that information.” Mike Erwin

Taking Action on What you are Learning

If you’ve followed me for a while, you know I love to read. I believe that leaders should be life-long learners. I also prefer to listen to leadership books on Audible or business podcasts instead of music when I’m traveling. I’m constantly being exposed to new ways of thinking. But what you may not know is that I keep a commonplace notebook, a simple place where I keep all the things I’m learning and the various ideas I have. And, I love turning those ideas into action. Let me give you an example.

I’m currently reading Stadium Status: Taking Your Business to the Big Time by John Brubaker. This is an amazing book about the mindset it takes to grow your ideas into a movement. In one chapter, John talks about a successful approach he used during his time as a college lacrosse coach. He knew the importance of building a great team and the significance of recruiting, so he coined the phrase “Recruit Daily or Perish” or RDOP. John wrote these letters everywhere in his office and even had them printed on the back of his phone. He knew he had to reach out to at least 20 people every day to recruit players, boosters, and supporters of his program. I loved this concept so I wrote it down in my commonplace notebook but then I did something else, I took action.

Quick Wins

I adopted and adapted John’s approach to fit my needs. As a small business leader, the most important thing I need right now is growth and orders. So, I took RDOP and changed it to SDOP, “Sell Daily or Perish.” I added contacting 20 customers a day to my daily routine. In the past two weeks, I have connected with more than 200 people in my industry, looking for a way I can help them. As a result, I have become more sales-focused and my company gained more than $40,000 in new orders. Taking an idea it and turning into action yielded significant results.

“It takes more than coming up with some great ideas to succeed in life. The land of success is only full of doers.” – Edmond Mbiaka

Too often I see leaders who read and research but they never take action. They are overcome with the paralysis of analysis and the fear of the unknown. They think that, if they study an idea long enough, they will know exactly how to do it. The truth is, you will never know until you try. I prefer to take the Mike Erwin approach, to take what I am learning and create real, concrete results. I know I don’t have all the answers but I’m going to learn along the way.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – H. Jackson Brown Jr.

Take the Leap

So, what are you studying right now? What is preventing you from turning that into action? Maybe it’s time take to the leap and get started even though you don’t have all the answers.

Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know what projects you’re working on.


P.S. In his spare time, Mike Erwin also co-authored a book with Raymond Kethledge called Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude which is one of my favorite leadership books. It inspired me to write an article about leadership and solitude.

The Problem with Short-Term Bosses

I was talking with some former colleagues the other day about a manager we all knew who had recently been fired. Her time in the role was short and now it was over. None of us were really surprised. She was brought in from outside the company to stir things up. And she did. Upper management wanted quick results so she focused on short-term fixes. She was a bull in a China shop. She brought in her own people, boosted the financials by deep cost-cutting, fired long-term employees, and instituted a top-down autocratic management style. She was laser-focused on short-term results and refused to listen to the concerns of employees and other managers. Anyone who challenged or questioned her authority was let go.

As you can imagine, the business results improved but morale dropped sharply. The good employees eventually all left the company and most of the institutional knowledge left as well. The only people who remained were those that were loyal to her and those that were quietly waiting for her to leave. Fear and anxiety became the norm. As a result, company performance ultimately fell off and all of the short-term gains she had made vanished. The company began to lose money and market share. Eventually, upper management had no choice but to fire her. The damage was done.

“You can’t build a long term future on short term thinking.” Billy Cox

Time and time again, I see companies bringing in short-term managers to fix long-term systemic problems. Often these companies have fundamental, structural flaws that need to be addressed. They have complex problems that need long-term, systemic thinking. Consider the examples of Radio Shack, Sears, K-Mart, and General Electric. Each of these companies has deep-rooted issues that have taken decades to develop. For years, leaders of these companies have focused on a series of attempts at short-term fixes. In the end, this short-term mindset has done little to address the underlying, long-term problems.

“For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” H. L. Mencken

Consider a similar company, Levi Strauss & Co. The iconic denim brand reached its peak in 1996 with $7.1 billion in sales. After that, sales declined rapidly. Competition from other brands and a lack of creative and new ideas pushed it from the center of American culture. Young customers were fleeing to newer and trendier “designer jeans.” Levi Strauss was going the way of Blockbuster. It was just a matter of time.

In 2011, a 28-year Proctor & Gamble executive named Chip Bergh took over as CEO. He inherited a company steeped in debt, struggling to reinvent itself in the highly competitive U.S. denim market. Instead of a series of short-term actions, however, he developed a long-term plan to put the iconic brand “back in the center of culture.” Instead of cutting costs, he invested in innovation and a new research-and-development center called the Eureka Innovation Lab. He also went back to basics. He focused the company’s efforts on making the best jeans, especially for women. He purposely stopped chasing other clothing categories that were a distraction. He also became less reliant on retail chains like J.C. Penny’s and Macy’s. Instead, he expanded the network of Levi-branded stores.

What’s even more surprising, is that Levi’s board gave him the time to execute his plan. And, it worked. After six years of implementing his turnaround strategy, Bergh finally saw the results. Levi sales grew by 7.7% in 2017 and by 13.9% in 2018. Last week, Bergh announced plans to take Levi’s public after a 34-year absence from the stock market. Bergh now feels that Levi Strauss has the potential to be a $10 billion company. He stated that “Levi’s lost a generation of consumers in the early 2000s, but today our customers are younger than ever—and we’re gaining momentum as we bring them back.” Long-term thinking brought Levi’s from the brink of collapse back into the center of culture.

“Long-term consistency trumps short-term intensity.” Bruce Lee.

Stories like this give me optimism. Senior managers of other struggling companies should be able to see the extraordinary turnaround of Levi Strauss and realize the time and effort that was required to make this happen. This is clear evidence of the power of long-term thinking and the patience required to allow these turnaround plans to come to fruition. Maybe someday we will see an end to short-term managers and the illusion of quick fixes.

Long-term thinking saved your favorite jeans. It can save your organization as well.

As always, reach out to me on Twitter and let me know what you think.

If you are looking for a good book on long-term thinking, you should read Go Long: Why Long-Term Thinking Is Your Best Short-Term Strategy. This book reveals how some of the world’s most prominent business leaders resisted short-term pressures to successfully manage their organizations for the long term, and in turn, aim to create more jobs, more satisfied customers, and more shareholder wealth.