Challenges as a Young Manager Leading More Experienced Staff (1)

The blog of the week is written by our new collaborator, Mallika Sarkar. She shares her experiences and thoughts about something that is becoming increasingly common as the millennials are growing their careers and baby boomers retiring;  younger staff taking on managerial roles that include leading staff that have more life and work experience than they do.  It can be both rewarding and challenging, below are Mallika’s thoughts.


The scenario: I am the new Head of HR, inheriting a team largely considered “dysfunctional’ or challenging. Their previous manager (KT), who is about 15 years my senior, now reports to me along with the rest of the team. There is an expected feeling of distrust, low morale and an impending sense of doom among the team members.   In addition, my own assumptions about the team are not the most positive, needless to say, it is a daunting undertaking.

This is a true albeit rather extreme situation. It is, however, also lately increasingly common for managers, leaders and entrepreneurs to hire or inherit a team where you find yourself leading members who are either more advanced in age or experience than you.

More than one-in-three American workers today are millennials and they have surpassed Generation X to become the largest share of the American workforce, according to new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. By 2020, nearly half (46 percent) of all U.S. workers will be Millennials (Lynch, 2008) and by 2025, millennials will comprise three-quarters of the global workforce. By comparison, the generation before them, Generation X (or Gen Xers), represent only 16 percent of today’s workforce.In addition, a significant share of current immigrants is millennials, and with the current age of transition from college to the working world, the Millennial generation’s workforce is very much poised to grow even further soon. This, combined with the retirement of boomers and comparative low number of Gen Xers, means that employers will be challenged with leadership gaps and will need to rely on Millennials to fill those gaps.

As I reflect on my situation as described above, and other points in my career, I realize that having a rulebook to guide me through such challenges would have been very helpful, but there was none. Here are a few questions that I encountered:

    • How do I coach and develop staff who have been doing this for longer than I have?
    • How do I offer the right level of autonomy while still providing structure and direction?
    • How do I strike the right balance between likability and respect?
    • How do I motivate a staff member who is older than me and ensure productivity and morale at this stage of their career?

With more experience and the luxury of hindsight, let me share a couple of  ideas for how to manage in this situation and leading your team to succeed:

  • Senior team members will look to you to set the vision, the pace as well as the boundaries and for you to communicate this with utmost clarity. So, this is where you will need to start as a leader, then provide them a wide berth to define the actual operational details. Refrain from micromanaging. Based on my experience, I recommend that you allow your senior team members to define their targets and metrics, which you then review, refine and align for optimal performance together. Remember that starting strong is key to a successful conclusion; setting boundaries and being firm but approachable strengthens the perception of you as a leader.
  • It is also critical, especially in this type of relationships, to provide a clear and measurable framework for evaluating performance, which addresses the difficult challenge to being perceived as fair and objective. Do not be afraid to hold your older colleagues accountable and don’t let poor performance slide. My experience is that more experienced colleagues prefer their managers to give them enough room to manage their targets. An effective way of addressing or confronting performance issues is to leverage this while holding firm on operating metrics and procedures.

In short, set clear expectations and boundaries, communicate your vision early and allow your staff to take responsibility for the delivery and performance.

In the second part of this blog, we will explore the uniqueness of the coaching challenges in such leadership situations and look at how to balance likeability and respect and motivate for performance.




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