Managing Workers Much Older Than You

Managing Workers Much Older Than You


When job candidates come in to interview at CertaPro Painters in Niagara Falls N.Y., a look of surprise often immediately appears on their faces. "They walk in the door and say, 'Oh, young guy,' " explains Dominic Ventresca, the franchise company's 23-year-old owner. "They question my authority."

Mr. Ventresca is not alone navigating the challenges of recruiting and managing workers who are closer in age to their parents. Professionals in their 20s held 10% of management positions in 2005 at companies with less than 500 employees, about the same as in 2002, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

But that number is likely to rise greatly in coming years at firms of all sizes, says Ed Reilly, president and chief executive officer of the American Management Association in New York. He expects a greater number of older professionals to pursue contributing roles instead of leadership positions as their personal goals shift from climbing the corporate ladder. Rather, their focus will move to supplementing savings or staying active, he says.

Among the skills young managers and entrepreneurs need to manage older workers are the ability to listen and be open-minded, says Justin Schaldone, a 25-year-old director of marketing at eFashion Solutions Inc., an e-commerce company in Secaucus, N.J. If an older employee disagrees with your way of doing things, offer to hear the person out, he advises. Because they typically have more work experience under their belt, older workers may be more comfortable with a method they've previously used, he explains.

When an older subordinate offered an alternative to one of Mr. Schaldone's directives last fall, he suggested trying both processes and comparing the results. His approach proved to be the most effective, and the employee was impressed, he says. "Giving people the opportunity to have some say into how we do things has been a good way for me to gain respect from the people who work for me," he says.

Still, young bosses may need to lay down the law at some point. Jaylaan Llewellyn had an employee 12 years her senior create a marketing plan which she didn't like. When Ms. Llewellyn, founder and chief executive of independent record label bluhammock music, asked for changes, the employee became confrontational.

"He had been doing this for years and said that this is what a marketing plan is supposed to look like," says Ms. Llewellyn, 27. While she didn't doubt his methods as being conventionally accepted, she says, she had her own vision and had to be firm to protect it. "There's a delicate balance between being a young person know-it-all and cow-towing to somebody else's experience," she says. "I try and walk a line, but also stay true to what I think is right for my company."

Young managers should avoid making their age known or discussing it in the workplace, says Mr. Ventresca, who bought his franchise in late 2005 by taking out a loan and tapping into savings earned from a landscaping business he ran during college. "[For older workers], realizing that you're 30 years older than your boss is not a happy thought," he says. "I'm proud of my accomplishments, but it's not something I need to broadcast."

For young managers, enlisting older professionals to work beneath them often requires strong self-confidence. Edward Smolyansky, 27, says he worried about prospective hires' impressions of his youthfulness in interviews when he started his job as the chief financial officer of Lifeway Foods Inc. in Morton Grove, Ill., five years ago. "I was thinking, are they uncomfortable? Do they think that they'd be coming to work for just some kid out of college who sees this as a game?" he recalls.

Mr. Smolyansky and his 32-year-old sister Julie, Lifeway's chief executive officer, inherited their roles when their father, the company's founder, died in 2002. Since then, Mr. Smolyansky says he's learned to quell his age-related anxiety because it can cloud his judgment. "You don't want to let those fears get in the way," he says. "At end of the day, your job is not to coddle someone who is older than you. Your job is to get the best employee for that position."

At start-up firms, Ms. Llewellyn says older candidates may be more comfortable taking on consulting positions. "They don't want their professional value to drop, especially if the company doesn't survive," she says. "Offering to have them work as a consultant allows you to prove to them it's worth it to take a risk." This set up also allows these workers to supplement their incomes with other jobs since start-ups typically cannot afford to pay experienced hires high salaries, she adds.

Young managers can benefit greatly from forming a relationship with a mentor, says Aaron Brown, who joined International Business Machines Corp. as a researcher at age 29. He was promoted to team leader after about one year and has since moved up to program director at the technology company's Somers, N.Y., office.

Mr. Brown says regular conversations with his mentor, a former senior manager at IBM who now consults for the company, helped him build confidence in his ability to lead a team of six workers, of whom half are much older than he is. "He talked me through a number of situations he had been in where he had become a leader of more experienced people," says Mr. Brown. "I drew a lot of strength from that."

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