age gap millennial managers

Big age gaps between managers and direct reports

Many leadership articles discuss how to communicate with and effectively manage the millennials. But what about managing an age gap in the other direction? How should millennial managers supervise someone older – maybe much older?

There can be a decades-wide spread between a manager and a direct report. Awkward, uncomfortable, even upsetting? Most of the time, hopefully not! But if the situation is any of those things, it’s time to think about the right way to approach the younger boss / older direct report scenario.

Let’s just call out the elephants in the room, and address them directly.

“I’m responsible for my direct report’s professional growth and development. Because of the age gap, I’m worried I don’t have much to offer them when they are already so much more experienced.”

A manager’s job is to diagnose and facilitate. A manager doesn’t have to be a direct report’s “everything.” In fact, the best managers do a good job of expanding their direct report’s networks, rather than being their network.

First, recognize that not everyone will have the same definition of “professional growth.” What might be ideal for you to climb the corporate ladder, might not be ideal for someone who wants to gain exposure to a lot of different things, or someone who just wants to get home before 6pm to watch the game every night. Any manager who doesn’t know what their direct report is looking for in terms of professional growth when there is a significant age gap should simply ask the individual.

OK, so I ask. Then what?

Next, if you can help them directly with supporting their professional development goals, then great! If not, figure out who you can put them in touch with, or identify some possible pathways for them to explore. You don’t have to hand them everything on a silver platter. Making introductions and asking around on their behalf is a great way to support their goals.

“With so much experience, they should be able to just run with it. I don’t want them to feel micro-managed, so I will back waaaay off.”

A manager still has to be a manager, whether there is an age gap between individuals or not. Don’t back off on engagement with direct reports based on some assumptions you have about their experience, feelings and possible reactions. Go ahead and engage! The likely scenario is that older direct reports will need a different type of leadership, rather than less leadership. Discover what that different leadership is.

“Because of the age gap, they do things differently – way differently – than my peers and I do things.”

Doing things differently often has nothing to do with an age gap per se.

In these situations, managers are actually focusing on the wrong issue. (And that’s probably why an obvious solution isn’t presenting itself.) “Doing things differently” is all about process. Process hang-ups tend to create either-or scenarios (his way or her way, my way or their way, old way or new way).

I am not suggesting that process doesn’t matter. However, the best way to pivot away from process hang-ups is to manage through the lens of desired outcomes.

If there is agreement on goals, then evaluate process questions through the lens of whether and how the available options serve team goals. Now, you can have a useful debate focused on where you’re all headed, rather than wallowing in debate about preferences or legacy differences that might get you nowhere.

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