Leading People Older Than You

October 25, 2014

Middle-aged womanRegardless of how you got to your management position, eventually you will find yourself managing people older than you.

I met one manager last week who is the youngest person in her department. That situation is pretty common these days, and it is a scary one for many leaders, especially those who are not well seasoned.

Here are ten tips that will help you be successful at gaining the necessary respect to lead more senior people effectively.

1. The first few days matter most

Actually, the first few hours or minutes are incredibly important because that is when you plant the seeds of confidence or doubt in your abilities.

Be authentic and do not play head games with people. Show immediate interest in and respect for the people who will be working for you.

Get to know them personally as quickly as you can. Every small gesture of interest in them and their thoughts will transform into credibility for you.

2. Be observant before you try to transform

Many leaders, especially those with little experience, figure they need to impress people with their power or brilliance to get respect. That approach usually backfires.

Before you seek to influence how things should be done in the future, you must first understand and appreciate how things have been done in the past. Do not spout out theories you learned in school in an attempt to snow people into respecting your knowledge.

3. Ask lots of questions

Many new leaders make a lot of statements and expect the workers to listen or take notes.

Instead, ask a lot of questions. The best approach is not knowing the right answers; it is knowing the right questions and using them wisely.

4. Put the age issue out to pasture quickly

People really do not care if their leader is older or younger than them. What they want is competence, compassion, and integrity. When you show those three things and respect people for their knowledge, then they will quickly forget that you are 20-30 years younger than they are.

5. Be genuine

Head games are for losers. Be genuine and real.

Try to figure out what matters and pay attention to those things.

Do not make the mistake of trying to be popular all the time, but also don’t be a jerk.

Think about the behaviors that you respect in a leader and emulate those. Respect people older than you for the experiences they have lived through, and listen to their stories with interest. Avoid doing a “one-up” on an experience that one of your reports conveys to you.

6. Begin to work on the culture

It is the culture of the work group that governs the quality of work life most of all. Work to figure out what is already working well and support that.

Where things need improvement, ask for advice about what people think would work. You do not need to do everything suggested, but you need to let people have a voice.

Work to build higher trust by making it safe for people to tell you what they really feel. In most areas that have morale problems, it is because people are afraid or feel disrespected.

Be approachable and be willing to listen deeply to the opinions of others. Make up your own mind what to do, but only after you have internalized and considered the ideas of others.

7. Be sincere, but not overly lavish, with your praise

People can smell a phony a mile away, and they will have no respect if you just try to butter them up in an effort to gain control.

Make sure that 100% of your reinforcement comes from your heart. People will know by the look in your eyes if you mean it or if you are just saying it. Mean it!

8. Create a positive culture

Motivation comes from within a person. If you try to manipulate the situation by providing perks in order to motivate the workers, you will fall flat on your face.

“Motivate” is not something you can do to another person; rather it is something a person does alone. Work to create the kind of environment where the workers decide this is a better place to work than before. They will motivate themselves in short order.

9. Be humble

People do not warm up to a braggart. Trying to impress them with your Harvard MBA will set you back several years in terms of ability to lead.

People relate to someone who is genuine and willing to learn from them. That attitude is far more effective than trying to win them over with your own prestigious background.

10. Care

There is an old saying that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” It sounds trite to say it, but that is really the secret to effective leadership of people who are older than you in years and experience.

Once you have built confidence in you as a leader, the issue of age goes away quickly, and you have overcome a stumbling block that trips many bright young leaders.

I grant that it is possible to muscle in and force your way to compliance with an older population. The problem is that compliance is another word for mediocrity. What you need from people is brilliant engagement, and that is what you will get if you follow the ten tips above.

Please No Bologna

October 18, 2014

garlic bolognaI advocate that each group of managers and leaders establish a list of behaviors that they intend to follow as a group. Reason: when expected behaviors are vaporware or wishy-washy concepts that are not specific, it is impossible for the team to hold each other accountable for abiding by the rules.

It is a mistake to have a long shopping list of 20-30 rules because it becomes too complicated to remember them all or convey them to each other. I think 5-7 behavioral rules work well for a management team.

One rule I wish every group would adopt is the “No Bologna” rule.

This idea is that we are all on the same team here, and we are not here to play games with each other. Trying to impress the other team members by pulling rank or outsmarting or embarrassing each other are common tactics of low performing management groups. If someone on the team wants to be disruptive, then the opportunity is there to bring down the effectiveness of the entire group by orders of magnitude. I have seen it happen numerous times.

If a team adopts a “No Bologna” rule, then a good technique is to have some kind of signal that can be given when someone forgets to follow the rule. Perhaps it might be a raised index finger or some other recognizable sign, like a “time out” signal that the team has agreed to.

One important concept is that the team needs to agree there will be no negative repercussions for anyone giving the sign, even if it is the boss who is causing the problem.

Having a pre-selected, and safe, signal allows the whole team to police the behaviors, and that permission quickly extinguishes the wrong behavior.

I was once with a team that was world class at making jokes at the expense of each other. The jokes were digs or barbs that were intended to be in jest and always taken that way on the surface. Unfortunately there was damage being done under the surface when people picked on each other, even if it was supposed to be a joke.

I suggested that they invent a hand signal to use when someone made a joke at the expense of another individual in the group. Since this was the third item on their list of rules, they elected to use three fingers to indicate someone violated the rule.

The results were simply amazing. In less than an hour the behavior that had been so firmly engrained in the team’s make up was totally extinguished. It only took a couple times of one member giving the sign to another for people to catch on and stop doing it.

The results in this group were transformational. The little barbs stopped, and from that point on the tone of the group was much more supportive. They still had fun and made jokes; they just did not do it at the expense of others.

Take the time with your team to invent some behavioral rules, and also invent some kind of signal to give if the rule is broken. You will find that it can make a big difference in the culture of the entire team.

Operate Ahead of the Power Curve

October 11, 2014

MistakeI was blessed with a wonderful mentor for most of my career. He and I got along famously, and he taught me a number of leadership skills over the years.

He was not a perfect manager himself, as he had a tendency to micromanage people. I found that out early and worked hard to over communicate with him and anticipate what he would ask so I could usually say “I already did it.”

After a while he stopped micromanaging me and left me alone to do what I thought was right.

One critical skill he taught me was what he called “operating ahead of the power curve.”

It took me a while to figure out what that meant, but I eventually got the idea, and the concept has been incredibly important to my success in life.

The idea is to charge at the work to be done very early and do not wait until just before something is due to get it done. That takes some discipline to do, but it is a wonderful way to live.

Reason: you do things in rough draft form well before they are needed and then you can relax and hone them in due time. It works well.

For example, as I am writing this blog article, it is the fourth one I have written this hour. My pattern is to put out one article each week. I have a stock of numerous articles ahead of me so I don’t have to rush them out. I can think about them.

When the inventory gets low, like today when I just exhausted my last article, I bang out 4-6 more articles to get ahead of the power curve.

My wife helps me by proofreading the text and making suggestions for improved content. Then I rewrite the article and have it “on the shelf” ready for when it is needed.

That way, I am never rushed to get an article out and I can take my time working on the content of each one.

Try the technique of working “ahead of the power curve” in your life. The process works well for school papers, for budgets, for painting the house, for any activity that you might want to procrastinate on. Just grit your teeth and do the job early.,

You will find that the quality of your finished work is much higher and you are less stressed about getting it done. That is a wonderful benefit for anyone.

Merger We Versus They

October 5, 2014

argumentAfter a merger or acquisition is announced, there is a period of integration while the cultures reach a new equilibrium.

During this process it is common to hear a lot of “we/they” type of conversation coming from both groups. If not addressed, this parochial thinking process can go on for a long time.

The longer the dichotomy is allowed to persist in the minds of people, the more problems will simmer during the integration and undermine the benefits of the combined entity.

This article highlights some ideas on how to move from a “we/they” point of view and get more quickly to “us.”

Sometimes there is a setup where both organizations are supposed to go on as if they were still separate entities. For example, Zappos under Amazon or Pixar under Disney were allowed to operate as if the acquisition had not occurred. The idea is for less disruption.

That logic may hold for a while, but eventually the benefits of operating efficiently together will take the upper hand. Sooner or later, people are going to have to work as a team and trust one another.

In the majority of cases, the integration is a rocky process because trust is at an all-time low from the way the deal was struck. Getting groups to work together with one common set of processes is a journey that can, and often does, take years to accomplish.

On paper, the full integration was to occur in a couple months, but in reality you can hear the “we versus they” logic for several years after the announcement. For example, you will hear, “We always did it this way, but they will not let us do it.”

What gives rise to we/they thinking? I believe it is because people naturally fear change and try to make the inevitable changes impact the other group.

In reality, both groups feel they have been taken over or at least greatly inconvenienced by the need to “do it their way,” so people dig in their heels and try to subvert the changes by proving “they will not work here.”

That attitude is tantamount to sabotage, and it can sink all legitimate efforts to create the kind of efficient, homogeneous entity that was envisioned when the merger was announced.

One method is to toss out the procedures for each entity and invent joint processes that serve both organizations from the ground up. That process sounds like a fair one until you get into it and realize that you are fighting both groups on each and every process change.

It is still we versus they but with a different flavor.

The most significant issue with the “we versus they” attitude is that it siphons off energy away from the main goal of the organization: to delight the customer.

Instead, significant time and resources are spent arguing over the nits of process details, and the customer is left wondering what happened to the good old level of service that was the norm before the merger.

What steps can be taken to eliminate “we versus they” and get to “us” more quickly?

One method is to transplant enough people from one entity to the other that it becomes difficult to tell who are “we” and who are “they.” That process is not always a popular one, but it does lead to a faster integration of the populations and it also enhances bench strength due to cross training.

One thing I have seen that erases the “we versus they” feeling is if another larger entity comes along and gobbles up the merged group. They are now fighting off a different “they” and quickly become the “we” together.

Let me explain that a bit more so it is clear. You have the merger of A & B. There is significant angst because both groups feel taken over. They are trying to resolve their differences when Group C buys out the sum of A & B. Now, as if by magic, the merged A&B get along great and work to fend off the effects of the big bad C Group.

One effective and inexpensive way to address the problem is for the leaders to always model the use of integrated language and coach those who use oppositional language to change their pattern of speech. Replace “them” with “us” whenever possible and do not support discussions that pit one side versus the other.

Having both groups meet together to chart a mutual shared purpose and strategy often goes a long way toward getting to “us.” When people put significant energy into crafting a collaborative vision, they tend to become closer as a result.

If both leaders of the prior entities are still on board heading up the combined unit, it helps to have them swap positions. That process adds to the knowledge base for bench strength and eliminates parochial thinking at the top.

Whenever you are involved in a merger or acquisition, it is wise to tackle the problem of “we/they” thinking with a conscious strategy. If not, your journey to full integration could be a long and painful one.

Trusting Me

September 27, 2014

Solving a problemI was chatting with a colleague about the nature of trust, and he made a statement that brought me up short. He said that most people overlook self trust as an extremely important concept in life.

I had to admit that in all my years of studying trust in people and organizations, I had not spent much time dealing with self trust. This article is an attempt to remedy that.

Self trust is kind of a spooky business. We tend to rationalize the things we do that may be marginal in terms of being right, either for us or for others.

If we do something that we know deep down is just wrong, we think about the reasons that drove us to do that and give ourselves a pass on the transaction.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how hard it really is to determine one’s level of self trust.

Ask yourself right now if you can trust yourself. It should give you a chill as you wrestle with your own personal level of integrity when nobody else can know your thoughts.

We all have habits or weaknesses that are not particularly good for us. For example, I do not purchase large containers of ice cream. Can you guess why?

If you are a person with no temptations or secret things you do that cannot be justified, then let me know; I will nominate you for sainthood.

For the rest of us, recognize that your personal private integrity can never be 100%. You will do some things in your life out of convenience, habit, addiction, laziness, ignorance, or greed (just to name a few). How do you know where to draw the line?

How do you know if you have integrity?

My colleague suggested that we cannot help others to develop more trust until we are sure we can trust ourselves. I believe that is true, but only with a caveat of degree.

I cannot say that in every instance in my life I have done what I know to be right, yet I do see myself as basically worthy of my own trust. How do I rationalize the dichotomy?

One way to keep from going insane as you wrestle with this conundrum is to become more conscious of the decisions you have made that you later regret.

For example, I was once given the wrong change by a cashier. I kept the extra money and felt really rotten about it for a day or two. Reason: my self image had been tarnished by my actions.

But I overcame the sin by learning from my mistake.

I vowed to never be guilty of that kind of thing again. Now, if I am ever aware of an error that has gone in my favor, rather than accept it as good fortune, I point out the error.

It has cost me a little bit in terms of cash, but I gained an immense amount in terms of self trust. I love the look of surprise when I tell a cashier “Oops, you only charged me for one, but there are really two there. They were nested together.” Yes, I had to pay the extra $11; my self esteem gained much more than that.

If we take a personal transgression as a signal to learn and resolve to become a different type of person on that dimension, we triumph over the issue and become more robust in our own integrity. That does not mean we will be perfect from that point on, but it does mean we are really trying to be true to ourselves.

I believe self trust is important. It is part of a healthy individual to believe in him or herself and know there is integrity. Work on your self talk in this way and you will grow in your ability to live the life you want to live.

Smart Pill for Leaders

September 20, 2014

Smart Pill croppedOne of my leadership students laments that some of the decisions the leaders in his organization make relative to policies and size of workforce are not smart.

These decisions reflect a misunderstanding of their impact, so the leaders end up doing things that are at cross purposes to what they want to accomplish.

I told the student to buy some “smart” pills for the leaders to take, which will let them know when they do things that take them in the wrong direction.

Then I realized that I already had discovered the “smart” pill several years ago and have taught leaders how to administer this magic potion for quite a while.

Leaders need a way to determine the impact of their decisions on the organization at the time of making those decisions. This knowledge will reduce the number of wrong-headed actions.

Picture a leader of 90 individuals. There are exactly 90 people who are capable of telling her the truth about the impact of poor decisions before she makes them. They would gladly do this if the leader had established an environment where it is safe to challenge an idea generated in her mind. How would a leader go about creating such an environment?

If a leader makes people glad when they tell her things she was really not eager to hear, those people will eventually learn it is safe to do it. They have the freedom to level with the leader when she is contemplating something really dumb.

It does not mean that all dumb things the leader wants to do need to be squashed. It simply means that if the leader establishes a safe culture, she will be tipped off in advance that a specific decision might not be smart.

Sometimes, due to a leader’s perspective, what may seem dumb to underlings may, in fact, be the smart thing to do. In this case the leader needs to educate the doubting underling on why the decision really does make sense. Here is an eight-step formula that constitutes a “smart” pill.

1. As much as possible, let people know in advance the decisions you are contemplating, and state your likely action.

2. Invite dialog, either public or private. People should feel free to express their opinions about the outcomes.

3. Treat people like adults, and listen to them carefully when they express concerns.

4. Factor their thoughts into your final decision process. This does not mean you always reverse your decision, but do consciously consider the input.

5. Make your final decision about the issue and announce it.

6. State that there were several opinions that were considered when making your decision.

7. Thank people for sharing their thoughts in a mature way.

8. Ask for everyone’s help to implement your decision whether or not they fully agree with the course of action.

Of course, it is important for people to share their concerns with the leader in a proper way at the proper time. Calling her a jerk in a staff meeting would not qualify as helpful information and would normally be a problem.

The leader not only needs to encourage people to speak up but give coaching as to how and when to do it effectively. Often this means encouraging people to give their concern in private and with helpful intent for the organization rather than an effort to embarrass the boss.

The leader will still make some dumb decisions, but they will be fewer, and be made recognizing the risks. Also, realize that history may reveal some decisions thought to be dumb at the time to be actually brilliant.

Understanding the risks allows some mitigating actions to remove much of the sting of making risky decisions. The action here is incumbent on the leader.

It is critical to have a response pattern that praises and reinforces people when they speak the truth, even if it flies in the face of what the leader wants to do. People then become open and more willing to confront the leader when her judgment seems wrong.

A leader needs to be consistent with this philosophy, although no one can be 100%. That would be impossible. Once in a while, any leader will push back on some unwanted “reality” statements, especially if they are accusatory or given in the wrong forum.

Most leaders are capable of making people who challenge them happy about it only a tiny fraction of the time, let’s say 5%. If we increase the odds to something like 80%, people will be more comfortable pointing out a potential blooper. That is enough momentum to change the culture.

It is important to recognize that making people glad they brought up a concern does not always mean a leader must acquiesce. All that is required is for the leader to treat the individual as someone with important information, listen to the person carefully, consider the veracity of the input, and honestly take the concern into account in deciding what to do.

In many situations, the leader will elect to go ahead with the original action, but she will now understand the potential ramifications better.

By sincerely thanking the person who pointed out the possible pitfall, the leader makes that individual happy she brought it up. Other people will take the risk in the future. That changes everything, and the leader now has an effective “smart” pill.


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