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.

Get out of your Bubble: Why the Secret to Great Leadership Insight is found in the Breakroom, not the Boardroom

What if you could know what your employees were thinking? What if you could see the company through their eyes? How would your leadership efforts change if you knew what truly motivated your team?

Believe it or not, understanding your team and how to lead them effectively is easier than you think. The problem is most leaders don’t spend enough time with employees, really listening to them.

“Leaders must recognize that the key to success and growth is getting employees to tell you what’s really going on.” Vineet Nayar

Listening to employees is a critical skill to master in order to become a more insightful and effective leader. This seems simple but it’s often overlooked. Most leaders spend their day in a bubble. They find themselves surrounded by people who see the company as they do. Getting out of the office and spending time listening to employees will help you break out of that bubble and give you a different perspective.

Here are four ways that listening to employees improves your skills as a leader:

You create relationships. When you spend time listening to employees, you get to know them and they get to know you. In the process, you build mutual respect. You build a relationship. As you learn more about their passions and challenges, you understand how to lead them more effectively. They will also get to know you better and the reasons behind your actions.

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” Bryant H. McGill

You face reality. Listening to employees gives you a unique perspective. You discover how things are really going. Employees can be brutally honest, which is why many leaders avoid this activity. If you are going to lead effectively, you need to confront reality and address the challenges your team is facing.

“Great listeners are often terrific at uncovering and putting in place strategies and plans that have a big impact.” Richard Branson

You uncover common themes. As you listen to employees, you discover common themes. These are small pieces of narrative that tell a bigger story. You might find that employees are having a problem with one of your supervisors or a new piece of software. You may uncover a common customer complaint or lingering production bottleneck. Spending time with employees gives you access to the raw data that is often filtered out in a traditional command-and-control structure.

 “Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.” Bernard Baruch

You build a team. When leaders and employees spend time together, they become more aware that they are on the same team. It’s easy to blame someone you don’t know, or understand, for your problems. Listening to employees can help eliminate the “us and them” mindset. When we do that, we can better focus our attention on customers, the competition and getting better as a company.

Some of the best leadership insights are found in the breakroom, not the boardroom. If you find yourself surrounded by people who see the company exactly as you do, you probably need to break out of your bubble and go spend time listening to employees. This simple act will help you create critical relationships, confront reality, uncover common concerns and build a stronger team.

What can a Christmas Movie about an Elf Teach us about Leadership?

Full confession. I once dressed up as Buddy the Elf and delivered candy canes to all my employees. That’s how much I love the movie Elf. I actually have a Buddy the Elf coffee mug that I use at work every year from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

I’m not the only one who loves this movie either. In the 14 years since its release, Elf has become a classic “must watch” holiday movie. Most people can quote at least one line from this hilarious Christmas comedy.

As I watched Elf again this year, I realize there were many powerful leadership messages in the story. Here’s some that I noticed:

Sometimes people just don’t fit in. Buddy the Elf was a human raised by elves. As such, he didn’t really fit into either world. As a leader, there are times when we have great employees who just don’t fit into an assignment or a department. We need to identify these people and put them in roles where they are a better fit.

Employees need to discover things on their own. Buddy the Elf learned his birth father, who he had never met, was on the “naughty list.” He went on a quest to find him to learn more about himself. Often times, employees need to do the same thing. They need to try new activities and be given stretch assignments to learn what they love. As leaders, we need to give people the freedom to discover what their true passions are.

“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” George S. Patton

People will always amaze you. When Buddy the Elf decides to decorate the toy department at Gimbels for Santa’s visit, everyone is shocked at his abilities. People will amaze you as well. Give them the chance to show you what they can do. As George Patton said, let them surprise you with their results.

“I just like to smile; smiling’s my favorite.” Buddy the Elf

Just smile. An employee once told me, I was her favorite boss. When I asked why, she explained that I always said, “thank you” and I smiled a lot. As a leader, we set the tone. If we’re upbeat and happy, our employees will sense that. Even when you’re having a rough day, remember to smile.

Don’t pick a snowball fight with someone from the North Pole. Buddy the Elf befriends his half-brother when he shows off his unusual talents in a snowball fight. As a business leader, we need to recognize when to fight and when to back down. Not every fight needs to be won. Pick your battles, whether it’s with employees, co-workers, or even customers. Always remember that discretion is often the better part of valor.

“I’m sorry I ruined your lives and crammed 11 cookies into the VCR.” Buddy the Elf

Sometimes we need to apologize.  When things didn’t initially work out with Buddy’s new-found family, he leaves an apology letter. Apologizing is often the hardest but most important thing we do as leaders. If we make a mistake, admit it and apologize. People know it’s hard to admit when you are wrong or hurt someone which makes a sincere apology even more powerful.

“You stink. You smell like beef and cheese! You don’t smell like Santa.” Buddy the Elf

Employees can spot a fake. Buddy the Elf quickly spotted the fake Santa and our employees will spot fakes as well. If you are not being genuine, authentic, and truthful, your employees will know. They can tell when you are not being real with them. Don’t think you can fake it around your team.

You need people to believe in your vision to bring it to life. Buddy the Elf knew people had to believe in Santa to make the reindeer fly. It’s the same thing with our visions. To bring our plans to life, we need people to understand and believe in them. Do your employees understand your vision? Do they believe in it? If not, it’s never going to get off the ground.

Christmas season is a great time to gather and watch our favorite holiday movies. As you sit through Elf this year, think about the leadership messages. Look for those employees who are not fitting in, find ways to let employees discover things on their own, give your people room to amaze you, find time to smile, choose your battles carefully, apologize, be authentic, and give your people something to believe in. If we do these things, we will be more successful as leaders and, maybe, be as happy as Buddy the Elf himself.