CXO

Win over older staff members by taking on the facilitator role

Managing a staff of seasoned pros gets a little tricky when you're the youngest one on your team. Here's how to keep this situation from becoming a career landmine.


When a young IT manager steps in to run the show, seasoned staffers often have a hard time hiding their resentment that they’ve been passed over for a promotion, or that they’re being managed by someone who has less experience or expertise.

“I think people in general feel uncomfortable working for folks who are younger than they are,” said Todd Clayton, director of business systems for Netegrity, Inc, a Waltham, MA-based security software solutions provider. His IT group handles the company’s application infrastructure, financial systems, much of the Web-based infrastructure, as well as the CRM system, e-mail, and hardware support.

Clayton understands the situation all too well. When the 32-year-old moved over from Netegrity’s sales organization to head the business systems group over a year ago, a third of the department was considerably older than he. Furthermore, they weren’t used to a manager who wanted to be directly involved in the day-to-day activities of the organization.

Clayton’s approach to making sure the age issue didn’t undermine his management, or impact team performance, included defining his role immediately and working hard to gain respect from his staff.

First step is defining role
One of the first management credos Clayton put into place was having staff consult with him before embarking on any new tasks.

The practice was designed to prevent other people in the company from reaching out to his staff directly and insisting that they work on other tasks at the expense of the department’s ongoing projects, he explained.

“It took at least three months before they felt that I wasn’t trying to micro-manage them,” recalled Clayton. “They eventually realized that I was asking them questions about their workload and project progress as a way to help us stay focused on getting the key tasks completed.”

Don’t be a dictator
Clayton’s primary advice to younger IT managers is to avoid the appearance of dictating the project direction and to concentrate on being the facilitator. The team has to perceive the younger manager’s role as helping the project and the work in general to progress, he added.

In order for a young boss to succeed, Clayton recommends investing time in establishing one-on-one rapport with each team member. He believes this is especially important when you’re the boss of people who have a lot more experience in certain areas than you do.

“You really need to reassure them that you value their special expertise and the skill and creativity they bring to the job,” said Clayton. “And you have to help them understand that your role as manager or director is to bring a broader perspective to the team, to keep it focused on its goals, and to assist them when they need assistance.”

The issues to expect
ArLyneDiamond, owner of Diamond Associates, agrees with Clayton that conflicts can arise when a young boss chooses to dictate rather than welcome input from his or her more experienced staff. Diamond said an abrasive management style can easily sabotage the success of an organization.

Diamond was once hired by a government agency to mediate a conflict between its recently hired, 35-year-old IT director and his older staff members. The IT director, who boasted an MBA, had impressive credentials from the corporate world, specifically in how to create organization and structure within an infant IT department and help it grow. What he lacked was the managerial skills to present those ideas to his work group in a way that elicited their buy-in, explained Diamond.

“So here was this Young Turk, mandating that these people immediately change the way they were doing things,” she recalled. “It nearly precipitated a sit-down strike.”

The staff would ”yes” the young director to his face and then keep doing things the way they had always done them. To ease the tension, Diamond ran a series of workshops to help the “old-timers” define the changes that were expected of them and the reasons for those changes.

“The end result was that the young boss got the changes that he wanted,” said Diamond, “but the difference was that the staff was able to reach that same desired conclusion themselves because they were now involved in the discussion.”

Aiming for respect
Clayton and Diamond agree that it takes hard work to achieve mutual respect and open communication.

“Both sides have to agree to be open and honest and upfront with each other,” said Clayton, “so that they can address issues that might otherwise fester over time.”

Clayton also points out that technical prowess has to be balanced with a knowledge of process and procedure. While a young boss fresh out of college might be more up on the latest technology, the seasoned pros may have the more in-depth knowledge and experience it takes to successfully deploy a product or take a project into production.

“We all bring different expertise to the workplace,” said Diamond. “If young bosses and seasoned pros are willing to teach and learn from each other, the organization is bound to achieve its goals.”

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