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.

Learn more in my new book, I have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following.

Earn your Oxygen: A Sea Story

Great leaders know a team of qualified employees is hard to beat. They establish a culture of competency where new employees feel positive peer pressure to work hard to earn their spot in the team.

Saturday at Sea

It was Saturday night on my second patrol on the USS Tennessee and I headed up to the wardroom for supper. Saturday night was always special on a deployed nuclear submarine at sea. It was pizza night. It was a time to shake up the normal meal rotation and enjoy some tastes of home. The crew cherished pizza night. It meant another week had passed and we were one more week closer to home. I loved the tradition of pizza night, although if I’m honest, the pizza was never all that good. Still, it was nice to kick back and enjoy a casual meal with my fellow officers.

For the officers in the wardroom, Saturday night almost always included a movie and a poker game as well. It was a chance to relax and burn off some steam after a long week. Everyone enjoyed Saturday nights on patrol. That is, of course, if you were qualified and I wasn’t there yet. It takes about a year to complete the submarine qualification process and earn your Dolphins as a new officer and I was almost finished. But, almost doesn’t mean anything to a qualified submariner.

When the meal was over, I quietly listened as the officers with embroidered Dolphins on their chest debated which movie they would watch. I listened enviously to their discussion. There were great movies on board and I would have loved the chance to escape submarine life for a few hours. But, that wasn’t going to happen. Not now.

“Life is Simple: You’re Either Qualified or You’re Not” Anonymous Submariner

It’s not Easy Being a NUB

“What are you looking at NUB? Go get some signatures on your ‘qual card’ if you want to watch a movie.” There it was. I wasn’t qualified and they let me know it. It was clear I wasn’t yet a contributing member of the crew. I was a NUB. A NUB is a Non-Useful Body, a colorful term used on a submarine to denote a new officer or sailor recently out of school and not yet qualified. It’s used to keep positive peer pressure on unqualified crew members so they will work hard on their qualifications. On a submarine, life was simple, you were either qualified or you weren’t. And, without Dolphins, I was just a NUB. I wasn’t yet carrying my load which meant I was taking food and oxygen from other qualified crew members who had earned it.

To a qualified submariner, a NUB is an annoyance at best and a liability at worst. It wasn’t a lot of fun being a NUB.

The truth is, peer pressure on the boat worked. It was effective on me and everyone else who had ever been in my shoes. We all wanted to belong. We all wanted to carry our load and we certainly didn’t want to be a liability. So, despite being tired, annoyed, and sometimes overwhelmed with the process, we trudged on. We worked hard to finish our qualifications. We worked hard to join the ranks of the qualified.

Earning my Oxygen

With my notebook, a cup of black coffee, and my dog-eared qualification card, I headed down to the torpedo room to work on my torpedo systems qualifications. That night I spent close to six hours in the torpedo room and got all the signatures needed to complete my torpedo systems qualification. The sailors there were quick to teach me everything I needed to know. They showed me the location of key valves, how the torpedo display worked, and we reviewed all the various torpedo casualties. It was a long night but, while the other officers watched movies and played cards, I got one more step closer to getting qualified and earning my oxygen. And, all in all, it was a pretty good night.

“Great leaders know a team of qualified employees is hard to beat.” Jon Rennie

Enduring Lessons

The Navy taught me valuable lessons about getting qualified. I learned how uncomfortable it was to be unqualified, how I felt like an outcast, not yet part of the family. I felt the shame of not being able to stand watch and pull my own weight. But, I also saw how that pressure drove me to work hard to get qualified, to gain the knowledge and experience to become an effective submariner.

While the Navy took positive peer pressure to an extreme, there are some important lessons that can be applied to any organization. First, the goal of any leader is to build a team of experienced and competent employees. A team of qualified employees is hard to beat. Second, new employees should be given a path to “qualification.” They need to clearly understand what is expected of them to become part of the team. Finally, like the submarine Dolphins, there should be a symbol that shows an employee is qualified. Companies like Lowe’s Home Improvement, for example, make new employees complete all their training before they “earn” their red vest. The red vest is worn with pride symbolizing a qualified member of the team.

Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know what you think. Does your organization have a qualification process? Is it effective?

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber

Learn more in my new book, I have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following.

Deployed for Christmas

“I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams” – Bing Crosby

I never liked eggnog. As a young man, I hadn’t really developed the taste for it. Even though it was always around during the holidays in my family, it just wasn’t my thing.

That is until I spent my first Christmas deployed.

I was a junior officer stationed aboard the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee near the end of the Cold War. When we left port, we were gone for months at a time with very little personal contact with the outside world. On this particular patrol, our deployment included both Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Strategic deterrence was a 24/7 business and these holidays were just another day for us to “keep the peace.”

I knew our Supply Officer had planned a special meal for Christmas and I understood our families had packed us small gifts to open but I remember thinking how strange it would be to be so far away from my family at this time of the year. I wondered what it would be like to spend Christmas in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on one of the most powerful warships in the world.

About two weeks before Christmas, one of the officers put up Christmas lights around the wardroom. I was surprised by my emotional response to the multicolored lights. I was both excited and depressed at the thought of being deployed for Christmas. Excited to celebrate the holiday with all my shipmates and sad that I would not be with my family.

I had another emotion as well. I felt proud. I felt honored to be a part of something bigger than myself. I knew our boat’s mission was important and necessary. I also knew I wanted to be here with my shipmates. Since our country’s founding, men and women of the military have stepped forward to protect America’s interests around the world. I was just another sailor in a long line of mariners who had come before me. It was my turn. I had the watch.

Christmas day was just like every other day at sea. I stood my six-hour watch in the engine room and then went to the mess decks to see what was going on. I was surprised to see the meal that was prepared for us. We had been at sea for well over a month and the meals had become somewhat routine and predictable but today was special. There was a variety of food and desserts being served which had been carefully stowed away and prepared for this occasion. The cooks even roasted an entire hog for the crew in the ship’s tiny galley. To this day, I’m still not sure how they pulled that off.

After our Christmas meal, the officers all met in the wardroom where we opened gifts from our families and talked about our Christmas traditions back home. We were a diverse group from all over the country and from every socioeconomic background. In a way, we represented all of America.

While we enjoyed apple and pumpkin pie that was almost as good as Grandma’s, the thing that really stood out was the eggnog. Our supply officer had managed to hide several cases of eggnog in our ship’s freezer for this occasion. At this point in our deployment, we had run out of fresh fruits and vegetables and the milk was long gone. We drank mostly coffee, water, “bug juice” (Kool-Aid) and an occasional soft drink that we had squirreled away in our personal lockers. The last thing we expected to see on this patrol was eggnog.

They say that the sense of smell is most closely linked to our memories. For me, the smell of eggnog was what brought me back home. When I closed my eyes and took in the spicy scent, I wasn’t in the middle of the Atlantic ocean some 500 feet below the ocean’s surface, I was home for Christmas. The aroma and flavor seemed to be the sweetest thing I had ever tasted. It tasted like home.

This Christmas, hundreds of men and women in our military will be deployed for Christmas. For most, this will be their first Christmas away from home. While each unit will do their best to make Christmas special, there is no substitute for being home for the holidays. Being deployed for Christmas is just another sacrifice our military men and women have to endure to keep our country free and safe.

I hope this Christmas, you will join me in raising a glass to our military and the sacrifices they make daily on our behalf. Our Christmas gift to them should be to never forget the importance of what they have done and what they continue to do for this country.

Photo: U.S. Navy released by Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet