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.

The Not-So-Subtle Art of Being Weird: How to Be Successful by Standing Out

Great leaders know the best way to beat their competition is not just to be better, but to be different. They understand that weird often wins.

The Power of Being Different

I was listening to Mike Dillard’s podcast the other day about a remarkable leader who turned around a failing organization. His name is Jesse Cole and if you don’t know him yet, you should. He is the owner and operator of a summer college baseball team located in Savannah, Georgia. But more than that, he’s a man who understands the power of being different.

Jesse came to Grayson Stadium in Savannah after a minor league team left the area. He owned a small collegiate summer baseball team and decided to bring them to the city with a goal of bringing baseball back to this historic 4,000-seat stadium. He knew he was in a city with a long tradition of baseball but he learned quickly that it was going to be very difficult to attract people to a sport that was dying in America. People found baseball was boring and Jesse soon found his dreams were bigger than his cash flow.

Jesse decided to take a different approach, to think differently. Instead of just being in the baseball business, he thought of himself as running an entertainment company. He wanted to create a fun place for families to go and enjoy a memorable time together. So, taking cues from P.T. Barnum and Walt Disney, he decided to create something special and it started with naming the team.

The Critics

Like most team owners, he went to the community to find a name. After reviewing hundreds of submitted ideas, one really stood out. It was weird, it was quirky, and it fit Jesse’s vision of being a fun entertainment company. That name was ultimately chosen. His team became the Savannah Bananas – and the reviews were terrible.

The community was in shock. The critics thought it was outrageous. City leaders were upset. How could this upstart baseball owner choose a disrespectful name for such an important and historic baseball park? What was he doing?

Embracing the Weirdness

But Jesse went all in with the Savannah Banana theme. He had a unique logo created featuring a banana baseball player and he purchased bright yellow uniforms for the team. Jesse even bought a yellow tuxedo so he could act as master of ceremonies for the games. But it didn’t end there.

He and his associates looked at what other teams were doing and they did the opposite. They introduced a simple pricing structure to make it affordable for families: $15 got you into the game and included an all-you-can-eat pass. The players greeted fans as they came into the stadium and danced between innings. They had a breakdancing first base coach and a pep band. They even had a group of elderly ladies as a dance team called the Savannah Nanas.

The Result

The fans loved it because it was so different from anything they had ever seen before and the critics embraced it as well.

Jesse went from having only a handful of season ticket holders to selling out their stadium for two years straight. Even now there’s a waiting list to buy tickets. The Savannah Bananas became a sensation in Savannah and around the country. Jesse’s little team caught the attention of national media. He had created a fun place for families and a great place to work. The energy and excitement of being a part of this organization brought the team together as well. The atmosphere was good for baseball. The Bananas became so good they won the championship for their league.

Jesse credits his success to being weird, different, and standing out from the crowd. It began by thinking differently about his business and acknowledging he was in the entertainment business, not the baseball business.

Valuable Lessons

As business leaders, what can we learn from Jesse’s approach? What are we doing to be weird and different? How are we standing out from the crowd? What are our competitors doing and how can we do the opposite?

We are doing some of this right now in my business, Peak Demand. For example, my competitors are all big corporations. They have poor customer service and ship their products in six to eight weeks – so, as a small business, we chose a different model. We build-to-stock to ship our products in just 24 hours and make it easy for customers to do business with us. We even include a small “prize” with each of our products for the person who opens the box. It might be a sticker, a koozie, a pen, or a screwdriver – just something small to thank the users of our products, not just the person who buys them. We want our customers to feel special. As CEO, I also follow up with every customer 30 days after the sale to ask how their experience was and how we could do better.

After hearing the story of Jesse Cole and the Savannah Bananas, however, I think I could be doing a lot more!

How about your business? What are you doing to stand out? Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know what you are doing that’s weird and different.

If you want to learn more about how Jesse Cole turned things around for the Bananas, I suggest reading Find Your Yellow Tux: How to Be Successful by Standing Out.

Photo Credit: Lloyd Brown, Stadium Journey

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