Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

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Federal Coach: Managing employees who are older and have more experience

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

You’ve been promoted at a relatively young age and now manage a group of employees, almost all of whom are older than you.

How do you handle this situation, especially if some of the employees believe they deserved the job and are resentful, and others are not particularly overjoyed about taking direction from someone who is younger and has less experience?

It’s a tough situation, but it is quite manageable.

As a starting point, hold a team meeting and let everyone know that you do not plan to launch any arbitrary changes, but intend to hold one-on-one sessions with the staff. Then follow through by sitting down with each person to learn what they think is working, what needs to be changed and what they're most interested in doing.

Also be sure to meet privately with any former competitors for the job. Explain that you know they were disappointed, but that you value their judgment and need their help and input. If that doesn't work and there is resistance, you will at some point have to have a heart-to heart talk where you make clear, “You now work for me and this is the direction we are headed.”

The key to success will be to bring the employees onboard and find ways to use each individual’s talent so that your team succeeds and you succeed. Listen to what they have to say, build relationships and get them engaged.

After meeting with all of the employees, be sure to circle back and let your team know that you heard them and outline some of the initial steps that you plan to take to put some of their ideas into action. Clear communication about your plans is essential. If some ideas are unworkable or premature, explain why. Be upfront or employees may think that you were being dishonest about your intentions and were not listening.

This feedback is critical. There are clear trends showing that a majority of federal workers believe their leaders are overlooking their ideas and the contributions. Don’t fall into this trap.

As you begin to implement changes, find employees who are willing to take leadership roles. If new agency initiatives align with an individual’s strengths and interests, tap that employee to serve on a special project or team.

Once you set employees off in a direction, give them space. Two common rookie mistakes I see from young leaders are that they try to do everything themselves and are micromanagers.

It’s understandable that a new leader, facing a need to produce immediate results, will feel compelled to stick with what’s worked in the past–doing their old jobs, just more of it. You have a team for reason, though, and that reason is to get things done. That does not mean that you tell them exactly everything that needs to get done, or exactly the way you would do it if you were responsible for the task.

Check yourself as you delegate tasks and assign new responsibilities. Less experienced employees will most certainly need a roadmap, but your more experienced folks will instead need your help around aligning their jobs to the team’s goals and activities. You will need to set clear expectations and performance goals such as quality and timeliness, support employee professional development and hold them accountable for ever-improving performance. What you don't need is to do their jobs.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, share credit with your team.

A young leader is accustomed to receiving accolades. However, it is now your job to cultivate others and allow them to excel. It’s a tough mental shift, but you will need to get used to deriving your rewards from seeing others succeed.

To help you with the shift, be proactive in finding appropriate opportunities to praise people. Send thank you notes. Take time during a team meeting to highlight the good work of team members. Most importantly, give them opportunities to speak with senior leaders where they have a chance to shine.

Managing people, regardless of age, is a tough task. As a young leader responsible for a team of more experienced employees, the stakes become even higher. That being said, you’re better off developing a plan of action than simply worrying about the challenge.

If you have thoughts on the issue of young leaders, please share them by leaving a comment below or by emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Sep 23, 2015 at 3:19 PM


Reader comments

Thu, Oct 1, 2015

Timely and informative article. Thank you.

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