Don Jones

Tech | Career | Musings

Tony asks:

I know you’ve been in management positions before. Have you ever had to be managed by someone younger than you, though? Or have you ever had to manage people older than you? How does it work out?

And here’s the list of everything asked so far.

I’ve been managed by people younger than me lots. My current boss is a few years younger than me. And I’ve managed people older than me. Until I stepped into my new role, in fact, I had several employees older than myself.

It’s never been a problem, and I’ll tell you why: I was raised in a military family, in a military town, and have had former military bosses. In the military, younger managers having older employees is practically the norm. Young officers are frequently put in charge of grizzled NCOs. It works because everyone in the military knows what they bring to the team, and what they don’t.

Officers are taught that they do not run the military. Oh sure, green O-1s have to really experience that fact, but by the time they’re an O-3 they usually know that their contribution to the team is to share directives and goals, and to do what’s needed to remove organizational barriers. They lead, but they don’t necessarily manage, if you take my point. Non-coms (think “Sergeants” for most military branches) take the goals their officers give them, and they make it happen.

It’s got nothing to do with age. It’s got everything to do with what does your job role bring to the table? and knowing the boundaries and scope of your role. It’s about respecting each other: a good officer knows that a good non-com simply knows more about the nuts and bolts of getting it done. A good officer may say, “look, we need to get this done, and here’s how I think we should do it,” and then listen to the feedback from his non-comms. A great officer might say, “look, we need to get this done, what do you need from me to make it happen?” and just let the non-comms do their job.

The military might be famous for wanting blind compliance with orders, but that’s not how it actually works most of the time. NCOs provide plenty of feedback to their officers, and good officers listen to that feedback and take it seriously. But good NCOs also know that the buck stops with the officer. “I give my Captain my feedback,” one non-comm told me, “and then he tells me what the decision is. At that point it doesn’t matter if I agree with it or not. My job is to get it done.” Non-comms recognize that they’re the best at their job, but that they don’t always have the broader perspective that officers are privy to. A non-comm focuses on running their team; officers are largely responsible for keeping all the teams moving in the needed direction.

Experience counts for a lot, and age often brings a certain amount of experience. Age doesn’t matter; experience is what matters. Someone with experiences deserves to be heard, but everyone needs to recognize their roles. A more experienced person can provide feedback, but if they’re not in the lead position, they need to be graceful and professional about following their leader, even if doing so doesn’t match their feedback. I try to make that clear with every team I lead: my job is to communicate the business’ needs and goals, and to remove organizational barriers. Your job, as my employee, is to make sure I have all the context I need to make good decisions, and to support me in those decisions. I’ll give you the room to do your job, because you’re the one best-suited to it. You give me room to lead. Together, we accomplish the mission, by each focusing on what our roles need to deliver.

 

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