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How to lead a team that is older than you

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Recently I interviewed a potential new hire who was in their mid-twenties and very much looking to move into management. They posed an interesting question to me - ‘what are the potential challenges of managing people with more experience than their manager’.

This led me to reflect upon my own career. I was first thrust into management due to an unexpected resignation when I was only 22 and had 18 months experience. I was instantly put in charge of seven people – many of whom had been working in recruitment longer than me. I was given very little training and without a doubt made a mess of it!

Over the next twenty years, I hope I have improved a little, however, like everyone I still make mistakes. I have learnt that it is important to involve those with more experience in decisions, to ask for their opinions and not to try and manage everyone in the same way.  Below I share my most recent blog on my views on managing those older than you / people with more experience.

According to a survey by OfficeTeam, 82 per cent of professionals would be comfortable reporting to a manager who is younger than they are. But among those who might have an objection, dissimilar work ethics or values (26 per cent) and learning styles were found to be the biggest challenges of having a younger leader.

As the workforce expands, the ageing population grows, and the appeal of entrepreneurism gets ever more desirable, CEOs and leaders are getting younger. There are currently five different generations in the workplace at one time, and research has shown that multigenerational workplaces are more productive and have less turnover. But as a younger leader, instructing an older employee can feel awkward or unknown.

Managing a multigenerational team is a skill in itself and has the potential to bring generations together to work collaboratively without jeopardising productivity or team morale.

Here are some key strategies to lead an employee or team who is older than you, smoothly and successfully.


Leave your ego at the door

Sure, you’ve worked your way to the top, and now you have the job title and authority to prove it. But successful leaders are those who lead, not dictate, and inspire, not deflate. So, it’s important to leave your ego at the door and focus on fostering meaningful and mutually-respectful relationships with your co-workers. This can nurture an inclusive workplace and warm up those who may feel apprehensive to the idea of having a younger manager.


Read the room

30 per cent of finance leaders said that communication skills were the greatest generational difference among employees, and more specifically, Baby Boomers tend to be more reserved while Generation Z typically prefers face-to-face interactions.

You may have different communication styles to others in your workplace, so it will prove helpful to be able to cater your style to your team. For example, some may find it easier to have a phone call to hash out some ideas, and others may prefer to put it down in an email. Read the room and listen to your team to work out the best ways to work together to meet the end goal.


Offer upskilling and training

Communication styles won’t be the only differences. Skillsets and abilities will vary between co-workers, and as technology constantly advances, opportunities for upskilling and training will arise. As a leader, your task is to ensure each employee is prepared and able to do the job at hand. There are countless workshops, webinars, courses, and upskilling materials online that can be offered to whole teams to ensure all generations are on a level playing field.


Acknowledge their experience

With an older employee comes years of experience, knowledge, and expertise. By some records, Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers have high work ethics and levels of commitment to their roles compared to younger generations. So having a wealth of experience in your team can be invaluable and one that others can learn from. It’s important to stay humble, acknowledge their experience, and encourage other team members to learn from it.


Age is just a number

However, age is not always an objective measure of experience or success. It’s important at all levels to not assume someone's’ ability based on first appearances, and the cases of younger leadership roles testifies to this.

Leading a team or team member older than you can feel unnatural. But it’s important to remember you have earned this position on your own merit, and that age is just a number. With a little understanding and confidence, teams can reap the benefits of multigenerational workplaces.


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