When Your Boss Is Younger Than You

Perhaps you’ve taken a new job, or your colleague was just promoted, and now your boss is younger than you. How do you put age aside and focus on what you have to learn from your manager? How do you keep your ego from getting in the way of your relationship? And what can you do to best support your boss—which is your job no matter your manager’s age?

What the Experts Say
Generational differences in the workplace are often a challenge, but dealing with a younger boss is perhaps the most difficult. “It’s not so much the age thing as the experience thing,” says Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the Wharton School and coauthor of Managing the Older Worker. In another context it wouldn’t be such a big deal. Say, for instance, you are taking a ski lesson from an instructor who’s 20 years younger than you but has been skiing for 15 years. “That’s not going to bother you. But if you’ve been in business for 20 years and your boss has been in business for 10, you might think, ‘Why am I taking orders from this person?’ His authority doesn’t seem legitimate.”

Younger bosses—already prevalent in industries like IT, professional services, and accounting—will likely become more so as “companies promote young Millennials into leadership positions and organizations make more of an effort to retain top talent,” says Jeanne C. Meister, a founding partner of Future Workplace, the human resources consultancy, and coauthor of The 2020 Workplace. It’s a “potentially uncomfortable, potentially conflict-ridden” situation, she says, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s how to foster a successful working relationship with your younger boss.

Reflect
First, “don’t assume he’s going to be a bad boss just because he’s younger,” says Cappelli. “Why manufacture problems before you have them?” Think positive. And if you can’t help but ruminate on the situation, ask yourself: what’s really bothering me? Is it that my boss got a promotion, and I didn’t? In which case, “you need to ask yourself: do I really want that person’s job? The answer is often no—particularly if you’re at the end of your career and want to slow down,” he says. But don’t dismiss your feelings either, says Meister. “Having a younger boss—particularly when the person is the age of your son or daughter—can be an emotional situation so you need to deal with it on an emotional level,” she adds. “If you don’t deal with your feelings, it will impede your productivity.” It’s often helpful to talk with “friends and colleagues who’ve been through something similar.” Not for a grousing session on “kids these days,” mind you. Seek out people who can offer helpful suggestions, support, and advice.

Don’t buy into stereotypes
The workplace brims with generational stereotypes: the narcissistic Baby Boomer who refuses to retire; the entitled Millenial who seems surgically attached to his smartphone; and the disaffected Gen Xer who’s only out for himself. Buy into these stereotypes at your peril, says Cappelli. According to his research, there are no real character differences between the generations. Even if your pop culture references are forever lost on each other—you watched The Waltons; she watched The Simpsons—try not to dwell on the differences. Instead focus on what you have in common: “You are two people who made a decision to work in the same industry at the same company,” he says. Avoid pigeonholing an entire age group and steer clear of sweeping statements like. “People in my generation feel this way.” You needn’t be on a constant defense to prove you’re not a dinosaur. Try your hardest to “take your age out of the equation,” adds Meister.

Show respect
Remember: it’s not all about you. Your boss may feel uncomfortable and even intimidated by your level of experience. Be sensitive to these feelings and show some humility. Recognize that you and your boss have different talents and capabilities that you each bring to the table, says Meister. “You may have a deeper niche skills while your boss has a broader managerial skill set.” Rather than obsess over the skimpiness of your boss’s LinkedIn profile, focus on “how you’re going to use your voice, your expertise, and your point of view to drive the business.” Besides, the things you need to do to cultivate a strong rapport with your young boss are not any different from the things you need to do to create a solid relationship with a boss who’s older. “You need to treat this as any other business relationship,” she says. So you need to contribute to its success.

Aim to be a partner
Your goal is to “work with this individual as a peer,” says Meister, to partner with him to make your team and organization successful. To encourage this kind of partnership, it’s your responsibility to manage up by maintaining an effective, productive working relationship. “If you want your boss to consider you a partner,” Cappelli says, “understand what your boss’s problems are and pitch solutions.” Propose ideas that free up your boss’s time to focus on other things.

Provide information
One of the best ways to support your younger and possibly less seasoned boss is by “telling her about things she doesn’t already know,” says Cappelli. Your experience gives you credibility. “Use it to be helpful,” he adds. The information you have to offer could be historical, such as advice on navigating the particulars of a longtime client contract, or relational, like insight into how Bob in the sales department thinks. Avoid being condescending or coming off as a know-it-all. “Talk about your experience in a way that emphasizes your own learning and doesn’t sound like bragging,” Cappelli says. “Don’t lecture—general pronouncements are hard to hear.” Instead, be concrete and matter-of-fact. He suggests saying something like, We had a situation like this before with this customer. Here’s what happened. Here’s what I was thinking at the time. And here was the result.

Be yourself
While it’s wise to avoid dwelling on your age in the workplace, your experience and life stage are integral to who you are. So you and your boss happen to be in different phases of life. Embrace it; be philosophical about it, says Cappelli. “It shouldn’t be hard to imagine what it’s like to be 30 with kids if you are 50 and your kids are now 20.” There might even be ways you can “life mentor” your new boss, he says. It could provide a lot of comfort. “You could say something like, ‘I remember when my kids first went to school too. I was worried about [a certain issue] and it turned out to be nothing.’” Meister agrees. Your maturity means that “you can relate to a number of life stages,” she says. Being open to talking about these things with your younger boss “will make the relationship authentic.”

Principles to Remember

Do

  • Seek advice from colleagues and friends who’ve experienced a similar workplace dynamic
  • Work to understand your manager’s problems and pitch solutions
  • Provide your boss with historical and relational information about your organization and industry

Don’t

  • Presume the situation will be hard; just because your boss is young doesn’t mean he won’t be a good manager
  • Dwell on your differences; instead focus on what you have in common
  • Lecture when sharing your knowledge and experience; be concrete and emphasize your own learning

Case Study #1: Use your experience and know-how to support your boss
Holly Pavlika, the SVP of marketing and content at Collective Bias, a social media company focused on brands and shopping, is “officially the oldest person” across all seven of the organization’s offices. “That’s actually somewhat disconcerting,” she says, clearly tongue-in-cheek.

When Holly started at Collective Bias several years ago, she reported to Amy Callahan, the founder. Today, she reports to Bill Sussman, the president and CEO. Both Amy and Bill are significantly younger than she is, but that never bothered her. “Being old doesn’t mean that people don’t value your experience. You have to learn how to serve it up,” she says.

For example, Collective Bias recently embarked on a reorganization in which several units and teams moved under Holly’s purview. She knew from experience that messaging about the moves would be key. “I’ve been involved with mergers and acquisitions at a number of places and I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t,” she says. So Holly drafted an email to employees explaining the changes. “I know that a few words can have a great impact,” she says.

Bill agreed with her communication strategy. He also suggested the company use a similar tactic when it moved departments in the future. “You put into practice what you know, and [younger bosses] kind of learn from you,” she says.

As for the young people in her office in New York, Holly says, “I don’t think they’re any different [from me]. We all want to succeed; we share similar values. Sometimes I can even surprise them with what I know. The other day I sent an email with the subject line: On fleek.”

Case Study #2: Understand your manager’s problems and pitch solutions
Keith Craig, the public relations manager for Linode, a cloud hosting provider, reports to Casey Smith, the company’s VP of marketing, a Gen-Xer who is more than a decade younger than he is. Keith, who is in his 50s, also takes directives from the firm’s marketing director, who is young enough to be his son.

To him, the age gaps aren’t such a big deal. “I don’t buy into the paternal notion that because I am older I should be the one leading,” he says. “I don’t have any ego—comes with age. In my 20s, when I was looking to make a name for myself it was different. But now I know it’s all about the company and all about the team.”

Besides, Keith says his relationship with Casey is more like a partnership. When Keith first joined the company 16 months ago, he was tasked with a lot of basic content generation—a press page for the website and things like that.

Once he finished those projects, he had a conversation with Casey about Linode’s overarching marketing need: to extend its brand beyond its bread-and-butter developer clientele. Keith reflected on possible solutions through the lens of his past professional experience. “The question was: where haven’t we looked [for customers]? Because of my background as a high school English teacher, I had an idea that we should focus on the hub of where IT innovation happens—colleges and universities.”

Keith came up with a plan for Linode to get more involved with schools by working with student-led computer science clubs, providing internships for college kids, and even offering guest lectures. He pitched it to Casey and Casey said to “run with it.” Keith is now putting his “IT workforce experience initiative” into action.

Keith admits that he does occasionally feel his age. “I am a Boomer who grew up on Captain Kangaroo. I talk differently and dress differently than most of the people I work with,” he says, adding that when his colleagues’ water cooler chat crosses into unfamiliar territory, he returns to his desk and does a quick internet search. “Google is a great cheat sheet.”

By Rebecca Knight

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