Joining a new company in a leadership role or getting a promotion to management comes with excitement — and anxiety. You might wonder how you’ll fit into a new workplace culture, or if you’re prepared for the challenges of a different role. You’ll likely also think about how you can cultivate strong relationships built on trust and mutual respect with your direct reports.
On top of this, you may be managing individuals with more experience than you have, be it in depth of expertise or years on the job. With climbing the corporate ladder no longer the only way forward in a company, employees are building their careers as individual contributors and developing advanced expertise in their chosen area. Others prefer to continue working well into their 60s and 70s — the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 30.2% of individuals aged 65-74 will still be working by the year 2026.
But all of these highly capable and experienced employees still need the support and direction of a manager, which means that if you’re a manager now or will be one in the future, you need to be prepared to work with individuals who have more experience than you do.
“Accept that you and your employees have had different career paths and in turn possess different levels of expertise,” said Charlette Beasley, Careers and Workplace Analyst at small business online resource Fit Small Business.
In these types of scenarios, it’s easy to feel intimidated or insecure in your ability to lead. But instead, you can rise to the challenge by showing confidence and courting humility. Get started with the advice below.
Doing internal work helps us succeed externally. If you’re managing people with more experience than you, prepare to meet this challenge by checking your ego, embracing learning opportunities, and leading confidently.
When it comes to the relationship with your more experienced employees, you’ll be able to keep your ego in check by owning your strengths — like the ability to lead — while accepting that you won’t have the most functional expertise on the team.
“As a marketer who has managed engineers in the past, I’m happy to be out of my depth of knowledge and acknowledge it,” said Shannon Maloney, cofounder of marketing advisory firm Ripp Marketing. “It’s like the idea of, ‘If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.’”
There’s no space for petty competition on a team that’s accomplishing big things. Transform your insecurities into learning opportunities by checking your ego at the door.
Too often, mentorship flows one way from manager to employee. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Employees with a lot of experience can function as mentors for us if we keep an open mind,” said Cory Colton, Principal Executive Coach at Inflection Point Coaching.
Part of being an effective manager is hiring the right people. If you're doing this well, chances are you’ll end up managing individuals who are more knowledgeable than you in some area.
“Managing people who have stronger skills than you is a treat and should be something to strive for,” Maloney said. “You want to surround yourself with people who excel in areas you’re not as strong in so you can learn from them.”
Take advantage of this opportunity to deepen your knowledge by asking thoughtful questions, and letting the employee take the lead when it comes to their subject-matter expertise.
You’re in a management position because you possess the necessary skills to translate corporate strategy into relevant, actionable goals and manage the people and projects needed to accomplish them. Your job is to remove obstacles and provide resources, while supporting team members in their career growth and development without getting mired in day-to-day operations.
When leading a team of more experienced individuals, rely on and defer to their expertise but remember to lead confidently.
“Always listen to someone with experience as they provide valuable insight, especially during challenging times. But don’t forget or change what brought you to this management position,” said Jeff Doolittle, founder of Organizational Talent Consulting, a personal and leadership development firm.
Maloney added that part of leading confidently is letting employees take the helm when they’re better equipped.
“You shouldn’t be a distraction,” she said. “Your role is to make sure they have the tools they need.”
Managers succeed when their team members succeed. You can help your experienced employees shine in the following ways.
Show deference in situations when employees may know more than you, and also amplify their expertise to other team members.
Baron Christopher Hanson, Lead Consultant at management and strategy consulting company RedBaronUSA, said that acknowledging employees publicly is important, but be sure to do so with context and specificity.
“Recognize their expertise in detail, so others can feel confident working with them, asking them questions, and looking to them for advice in a technical quandary,” Hanson said.
Experienced employees have earned the right to challenging and satisfying work. Especially with employees who may be older than you are, don’t presume they lack energy or enthusiasm or are disinterested in new opportunities.
“People with more experience than you, who now work for you, crave greater challenge, greater compensation, and greater recognition,” Hanson said. “What they deserve is a rigorous role that asks more of them and offers greater opportunity for reward.”
Ask experienced employees for feedback on what’s working well and what could be going better, advised Colton.
“Involve them in conversations that impact the work of the team. Most likely, they have previously been through the issue that leaders now need to understand,” Colton said. “Asking for their input helps them feel valued and respected.”
You can also leverage their expertise to find creative solutions to problems you’re stumped by.
“Even when I’m ready to voice my thoughts I will often actively choose to stay silent and, instead, ask another question,” said Jennifer Yugo, PhD, SPHR, Managing Director at HR consultancy Corvirtus. “I want my experienced teammates to have a voice first — especially when offering concerns and downsides they observe.”
Whether you’re a new manager or a seasoned team leader, you’ll likely be managing people with more experience than you at some point in your career, if you aren’t already. By embracing your strengths as a leader and remaining open to learning opportunities, you’ll grow in your own role while helping your team members — and your company — succeed.