Younger managers working with older employees doesn't have to be awkward. Here's how to manage the relationship so everyone benefits.
He's 70 years old, still climbs mountains, and just sold his software company to a larger firm, for which he is now a regular employee. In so doing, he's joining a fleet of other IT professionals in their late 50s or early 60s who work on mainframe software and system tuning.
This isn't an unusual occurrence in many large enterprises, which use older workers because of their skillsets with older, proprietary technologies and also their ability to understand more about "what goes on under the hood" of the computer than younger workers when it comes to fine tuning systems.
Many of these older workers have run their own companies or have held senior IT management positions—but they don't want to do that anymore. So they may find themselves working for managers younger than themselves, which can get awkward for both parties.
Here is the sticking point:
Many of these older workers who are reporting to you are going to know more about IT than you do. This can make it awkward for you to assert management authority.
If you're one of these younger managers, what can you do?
Understand what motivates older employees
For older workers who have been around the block, the primary goal is not usually to strive for promotions or to climb the corporate ladder. Chances are, they have already done that (or as much of it as they want to). Instead, older workers want to enjoy what they are doing and make a contribution. This can be difficult for a younger manager to empathize with since he or she is likely still in the career-building stage —but it is absolutely critical if you are managing older employees, and are depending on them to make important contributions to your team and your projects.
Value their experience
There is still no substitute for work experience. Older IT professionals can look at a system performance issue as if they are looking at an X-ray in a lab and quickly know what to do because they've seen the problem before. The same issue might take a younger, less experienced person several days to resolve. Older workers are proud of this experience, and as their manager, you should be, too—because your time to resolution for system issues will be shorter.
Use older workers as mentors
Although there are older IT workers who prefer to be left alone to focus on technical work, there are also many who are eager to "give back" in the form of training younger staff members to do some of the work they are experts at. As a manager, you should jump at this opportunity, because you can build staff "bench strength." One way to do this is to assign older technical mentors to younger staff so they can work together as teams.
Treat older workers as partners
You are still the manager with ultimate decision making authority, but when you meet with your older staff members on a one-to-one level, you can earn their respect faster if you treat them as partners instead of subordinates. This goes hand in hand with the fact that they likely will know more about projects you are managing than you do—and they will know that they do. However, older workers also come from hierarchical management structures, and will understand and respect the management role that you play.
Don't feel bashful about your management role
Because many older workers have already been managers, they aren't likely to question your management authority or to even want your position—unless you get into a technology debate with them in their area of expertise, which you are unlikely to win. Stay away from the technology ego challenges and focus on doing what it takes to manage the project. Your older workers will appreciate it. As one of them who was still managing IT recently told me, "I can't wait to retire so I can take a regular IT staff job in systems programming, which I've always loved. Then when someone asks me about project status, I can point a finger at some other person, and say, 'Go ask them!'"
Two years ago, the Harvard Business Review reported that workers who were at, or approaching, the age of 65 were the fastest growing segment of the workforce. These individuals are able-bodied, quick witted, and living healthier and longer.
At a time when IT is struggling for skilled people and for individuals who can mentor and nurture young talent, older workers with valuable skillsets are too important to ignore, and younger managers need to be in step with this.
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