One of the most telling litmus tests of entrepreneurship is how you lead (and do business with) people older than you.
According to U.S. Labor Force statistics, more than one in three American workers today are millennials (ages 18 to 34 in 2015). This 53.5 million-strong workforce has recently surpassed both gen X-ers (ages 35 to 50 in 2015) and baby boomers (ages 51 to 70 in 2015) as the majority.
Despite the shift, gen X-ers and baby boomers still comprise more than 100 million people in the workforce. These folks are in their peak earning years and have significant networks, meaning a hefty amount of your income or investment capital will come from this group.
So what’s a younger entrepreneur to do? The easy thing would be to pull rank, lead from your title and throw your weight around. The wiser thing to do is learn to endear yourself to them. Here are three ways to do exactly that:
1. Empathize with each age group.
When I was in my 20s, an older, wiser business leader taught me this framework. Though admittedly generic, it characterizes each age group by a simple question they ask of themselves:
- 20s: “What am I supposed to do with my life?”
- 30s: “How am I going to get this all done?”
- 40s: “Why are some of my peers doing better than me?”
- 50s: “How much longer can I keep doing the things that define me?”
- 60s: “Does anyone know who I used to be?”
- 70s: “Does anyone remember who I am?”
Do your best not to make people in their 40s feel like they’re behind the times with insensitive remarks such as, “Wow! You use Instagram?” If you have quality team members in their 50s, consider how lessening their responsibilities -- even in their best interest -- might be perceived as an attack on their identity or capability.
Put yourself in others’ shoes with this simple list of questions. Authority is automatic, but respect isn’t. You need both to do business effectively.
2. Resist intimidation.
Your leadership will most certainly be challenged by older people, both inside and outside your business.
In my early 30s, I took over a key department in marketing and recruiting for an older organization. I was now leading people in their 50s and 60s. From the outset, one person made it clear he had seen “my kind” before, and that he’d be there long after I was gone. The position I held was a revolving door, so the intimidation game was on.
In one meeting, this guy blatantly walked out in the middle of a talk I was doing -- for the whole group to see. In another instance, he simply started playing a guitar tutorial video on his phone during a meeting.
I addressed his patterns of behavior, rather than just a one-time event. After one more instance, I had to let him go. To my surprise, I earned the respect of my team members (many of whom were longtime friends of his) for dealing with this person patiently while also standing my ground.
Tough conversations are part of business. Don’t be intimidated.
(For a great read on dealing with intimidation, check out Oren Klaff’s excellent title, Pitch Anything: An Innovative Method for Presenting, Persuading, and Winning the Deal.)
3. Limit tension by listening.
When people complain, they really want to know they’ve been heard. You’ll be amazed at how much tension can be diffused simply by listening.
The foremost complaint I’ve heard from the employees of organizations I work with is “no one listens to us.” Oddly enough, it’s also the foremost complaint I hear from the executives of those very same organizations -- about their own employees!
If you’re met with backlash from older team members or partners, assure them they’ve been heard and invite them to be part of the solution. Ask them to help your company “turn the corner.” Tell them, “We need your maturity and experience to transform our culture for the better. You have tremendous value.”
Most people will rally to a cause when you can clearly articulate the big picture and how they fit into the plan, even if they don’t wholeheartedly agree with the methods.
A younger entrepreneur that exhibits empathy, maturity and effective communication skills is a rarity. If you follow these steps, people of all age groups and will respect and rally around you, regardless of how old (or young) you are.
Related: Why Generations Clash at Work