Managing Older Employees

As a founding member of the Mentors Guild, I help individuals and businesses maximize their performance. Here’s my latest response to a question posed in their Ask an Expert forum:

Their Question: My leadership style is casual, friendly and collaborative. One big hurdle — I have to manage a SME (subject matter expert) senior engineer (nearing retirement age) who is also a likely contender to the position. It is an exciting and intimidating opportunity.  Appreciate your advice.

My Answer: I’ve faced similar circumstances in my own career. Great opportunities to test whether we’re as good as we think we are!

What worked for me was to adopt a full-on “servant leader” approach to my older-than-me direct reports, asking them:

  • “Tell me how you want to be managed?”
  • “What type of support do you want…or not want…from me?”
  • “Do you prefer me to ask you for updates or you to provide your updates to proactively?”

Based on what they say, negotiate, as needed:

  • “Sure, I can check in with you no more than once/month, but then you need to check in with me every Thursday at 2pm because if I don’t know what you’re working on I’m likely to make some pretty lousy decisions on your behalf.”
  • “Oh, Thursdays won’t work? Okay, then when before that would?”
  • “I understand you think you could do my job better than me, and quite possibly you can, but what I want to know is what would demonstrate otherwise to you? Let’s talk about what make me the best boss you’ve ever had and see if I can rise to the challenge?”

A lot of this has to do with your poise; your grace under fire, as it were. So keep in mind that your boss picked you, no doubt, because s/he thought you were capable enough to handle the challenge. Proving him/her right about that will serve you, your boss, and your direct reports well.

Let me know if you’d like to talk through some of the follow-up questions you, no doubt, have.

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