Joining a new company in a leadership role or getting promoted to management for the first time comes with excitement — and anxiety. You might wonder whether you’re prepared for the challenges of people management and how you can cultivate strong relationships with your direct reports. On top of this, you may be managing individuals with more experience than you have, be it in the depth of expertise or number of years on the job.
In these 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 humility. To be a great manager for experienced staff members, get started with the advice below.
Navigating Age and Experience Gaps
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. Some choose to continue working well into their 70s, and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the labor force participation rate for people age 75 and older will increase by 96.5% from 2020 to 2030. And with the share of older employees in the labor force the only one projected to grow in that time frame, young managers will likely find themselves leading teams of millennials and baby boomers alike.
Accept that you and your employees have had different career paths and in turn possess different levels of expertise.
But whether you’re navigating an age gap or an experience gap as the manager of a team, recognize that you’ve been asked to lead for a reason. You may have the decision-making chops that will allow your team to operate efficiently, or maybe you’re good at breaking big-picture ideas down into manageable chunks.
“Accept that you and your employees have had different career paths and in turn possess different levels of expertise,” said Charlette Beasley, associate director of content at business-to-business media company TechnologyAdvice.
Even highly capable and experienced employees 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. Start by examining your approach.
Personal Work You Need to Do First As a Manager
Doing internal work helps us succeed externally. If you’re managing employees who have more years of experience than you do, prepare to meet this challenge by checking your ego, embracing learning opportunities, and leading confidently.
1. Check your ego.
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 your leadership skills — 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 Stubbings, chief digital officer at Australian strategic marketing and creative agency Ravel. “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.
2. Embrace learning opportunities.
Too often, mentorship flows one way from manager to employee. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
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,” Stubbings 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.
3. Lead confidently.
You’re in a management role because you possess the skill set needed to translate corporate strategy into relevant, actionable goals and develop the people and project management initiatives to help your team excel. 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 people, rely on and defer to their expertise, but remember to lead confidently.
If you really trust their expertise, take a step back and let them make decisions for themselves.
“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 organizational development firm.
Stubbings added that part of leading confidently is letting employees take the helm when they’re better equipped. “Your role is to make sure they have the tools they need,” she said.
How to Help Experienced Team Members Shine
Managers succeed when their teams succeed. You can help your more experienced employees shine in the following ways.
1. Acknowledge their experience and expertise publicly.
Show deference in situations when employees may know more than you, and also amplify their expertise to other team members.
Baron Christopher Hanson, growth strategy consultant at management and strategy consulting company RedBaronUSA, said that acknowledging employees publicly is important, and good managers will 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.
2. Provide challenging work and opportunities to grow.
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.”
When any member of your team takes on a challenge, be sure to recognize their hard work and praise their achievements. Older employees and more experienced team members want to hear that they’re doing a good job, just like anyone else.
3. Don’t micromanage them.
Micromanagement is a quick way to frustrate your experienced team members. If you really trust their expertise, take a step back and let them make decisions for themselves. Experienced employees will likely have learned more efficient ways to complete tasks and solve problems over time, and you’d do your team a disservice by requiring them to follow a clunky workflow.
It’s good to have a template to help you complete a project, but ignoring potential improvements because they deviate from the plan will only delay your team in reaching its goal. Effective managers welcome suggestions that can benefit the team — and your more experienced team members are likely to have ideas that can help.
Even when I’m ready to voice my thoughts I will often actively choose to stay silent and, instead, ask another question.
4. Ask for their feedback.
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 that are stumping you.
“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, 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.