3 Tips for a Millennial Manager Leading an Older Generation
When I was handed the keys to our family business, ROYCE, I never once questioned the loyalty, diligence or dedication of our team. After innumerable dinner table stories shared by my parents akin to the theme of “you wouldn’t believe Antonio stayed till 9 on a Friday night for a rush order” or “Carlos opened up at 5 am on a Sunday to prep for a monogramming event,” my respect for our ROYCE family is insurmountable.
Conversely, would they respect me? Yes, I had been working part-time in our business since I was 16 and could leverage a pair of international business degrees, but let’s face it -- I was still 23 years old and merely shared the same last name as the business owners. Many of our employees have been working with us for longer than I had been alive. In fact, several were literally there to watch my mother give birth to me. It was with great trepidation that I stepped into our distribution center, equally eager to make a difference and fearful to disrupt the company culture.
My glaring naïveté catalyzed three managerial miscues.
1. Thinking I couldn't relate.
My assumption was that I could not relate with employees who were decades older than me. They had spouses, kids and grandkids; I did not even have a girlfriend. What would we talk about? I wondered this as I actively avoided them in the break room. From my misguided perspective, I thought that the less they got to know me, the less they would recognize the vast gap in our personal backgrounds.
Now, I take a sincere interest in their lives. While I may not be able to offer sage wisdom, there is no reason not to ask about their son’s high school graduation, explore their career aspirations or inquire about their best empanada recipe. Establishing personal connections with my team enabled me to understand them far better than output productivity metrics could ever convey.
Knowing what drives them and what is significant in their lives -- whether it be God or the NY Yankees (you’d be surprised, too!) -- has fostered better communication from both sides.
2. Not learning from my best resources.
My second mistake was not learning from my team and failing to realize that my older employees were my best resources. I come from three generations of leather craftsmen, but to be honest, I suck. As I struggled at night in the workshop, a futile process characterized by burns on my hands and cut fingers, I realized they didn't teach this in business school.
Since I did not want my employees to witness my dearth of technical skills, I made production decisions without their input. And when those decisions inevitably failed, I finally acknowledged that our employees had been with the company for a long time for a reason. They wanted to see us succeed.
Since that epiphany, I ask them questions all the time. I ask for their input. They want to share, be active participants in the decision-making process and demonstrate their vast knowledge.
3. Letting age dictate my management style.
My most costly mistake was allowing the age gap to dictate my management style. I would deliberately avoid holding employees accountable because I feared they would not be receptive to my constructive feedback. Subsequently, employees saw that and exploited it -- from clocking out ten minutes early or cutting corners in production. The aim of my managerial position was to put my team in the best position to collectively succeed, but I was failing at that because of my hands-off approach. It was only when I acknowledged the age disparity and was transparent about my concerns and fears that a closer relationship between my employees and I could be forged.
It’s hard to deceive people of my age; my lacking facial hair is a total giveaway. But age becomes increasingly irrelevant -- and respect becomes increasingly earned -- when you perform your role and perform it well, from working through problems to celebrating their successes together.