Leading Older Employees with Confidence

May 1, 2017

When I think about what makes a great boss, one of my first items is someone who really knows what they are doing – a true expert. And when I think about what makes a true expert, in my mind it’s always an older person, someone with sage-like wisdom who has been where I am… but a long time ago.

If you’ve worked for any length of time, you know that’s just not realistic.

I’ve managed folks who were older than me in the past and recently finished an assignment with my first younger boss – a great experience for me. If you’re younger than the folks you lead, keep these best practices in mind.

Be Authentic

When new leadership opportunities arise, the temptation to prove oneself can be overwhelming. Everyone wants to show they are up for the challenge. The problem comes when the focus shifts from serving the customer or client to maintaining the appearance of competence.

Age aside, what employees really want to know is: do you care, can I trust you and can you get the job done – usually in that order. Be yourself – don’t let a new leadership opportunity turn you into something you can’t sustain and others can’t respect.

Be Quick to Praise & Express Appreciation

No leader can succeed alone – and teams know this. Praise inspires. Appreciation motivates. Negative reinforcement can create resentment and easily backfire when you’ve yet to win your team over.

By the way, praise only works coming from a place of authenticity.

Ask for Input

One temptation of leading (regardless of age) is needing to “know best” in all situations – as if being the one with all the answers is actually possible. On a project I joined several years ago, the senior executive gathered his new team together to create the blueprint. “Don’t think that just because I’m the boss, I have all the answers,” he said. “We’ll need to work together to figure this out.”

Soliciting the input of your team – especially older team members – demonstrates value for their knowledge and experience. You may not use it every time, but asking for it is a tremendous way to win respect.

Stick to Your Guns

As the leader, you are responsible to represent the interests of your organization. That means making decisions that aren’t always popular with your team. If you acquiesce to your team’s preferences or value their input too highly, you won’t be what they truly need: a leader. This can be particularly challenging for younger leaders, but it’s a necessary competency. Pick and choose your battles, but stick to your guns when you do.

Do the Work

Everyone watches the leader, and a leader’s example sets the precedent. It’s hard to respect leaders who ask for more than they are willing to give themselves. At the end of the day, leadership is a responsibility, not a privilege.

Leading older and more experienced colleagues is a tremendous growth opportunity. It’s not always easy, but if you lead at all, you’ll have the opportunity – probably sooner than later. Until then, remember, you’re never too young to set a good example – with leadership or otherwise.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or   follow him on Twitter.