7 ways to lead people who are older than you

“Who on earth does this kid think he is?” This, I am sure, was the overall impression I left on people during my first year as a full-time minister.

Fresh out of seminary and ready to take on the world, I was going to teach these older generations a thing or two – and I made sure they knew it! Needless to say I failed pretty miserably, left a wake of distrust behind me and ensured a consistent undercurrent of defensiveness in my meetings. Bummer.

Learning to manage the older generations in your team is absolutely vital! Not only does it properly respect the formula for united and diverse ministry laid out in 1 Corinthians 12, but it also makes everyone’s life easier and your projects much more effective.

These seven tips for how to lead older team members boil down to three simple principles: value, trust and communication. You must consistently show that you genuinely value everybody’s input. You must cultivate a culture of mutual trust and respect. You must communicate clearly on several levels to make sure everybody is on board. Let’s unpack the tips more thoroughly:

1. Make the right first impression

Experts claim that between thirty seconds and two minutes is all the time people take to form a lasting impression of someone. I’m not sure if this is true, but it’s a pretty scary idea. However long it actually takes, the principal remains the same: we need to start off on the right foot.

You should not come across immediately as ‘the boss.’ Instead be humble, ask lots of questions, show genuine interest and make simple friendly gestures. If you come across from the start as open, friendly, and easy to talk to, it will set the stage for all of your interactions when managing people later.

2. Get to know them personally

It’s important to know team members, and particularly older team members, personally outside of your meetings. It gives you the proper room to talk and share together and it builds trust.

Take them out for coffee, accept their invitations to dinner, join them on rambles and meet their families. Take time to understand their background and history, delve into their experience and allow them to tell you their stories. It will be far more interesting and edifying than you might think!

Also, be open and genuine with them. Allow aspects of your vulnerability to come through, and especially be reasonably honest about your nervousness as a young leader. This is a great opportunity for you to show your trust in them, and to reach out to their wisdom.

3. Metacognate

Isn’t that just a fantastic word? It literally means to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – and doing so for your older members will be an illuminating thought experiment!

Consider that when you’re in your 20s and 30s you are still trying to understand what your life will stand for. When you get to your 40s and 50s, focus switches to your family’s legacies, and your fears surround comparing yourself to your peers. In your 60s and 70s you look back more and ask questions about your value, the impact you left behind and whether you mattered.

Try to imagine what it’s like to live with those different perspectives and fears. Empathise with them and be sympathetic in how you manage.

4. Listen actively and communicate clearly

Active listening is intentional. When it comes to the older generations you need to ask lots of questions, listen carefully to their responses, and remember the stories they tell you. Just smiling and nodding doesn’t work if you can’t recall the information and apply it later. This means you should observe carefully and watch before you make any major changes or start any revolutions. You want to bring people with you, and that requires responding to who they really are.

Listening shows that you are willing to be a learner and are obviously teachable. Teachable leaders are always the best team managers as they are able to incorporate people’s differing perspectives while helping them feel valued at the same time. One of the best ways you can do this is to ask for their feedback specifically and consistently.

In meetings, you should give lots of room for expression and clearly acknowledge the points made. However if you want to push a change or new project though, then it is vital that you first meet with members individually. This prepares them for change and also allows you to get their feedback and hear their thoughts before you bring it to a public meeting.

Finally make sure you communicate on many levels. It’s not enough to simply say “well I copied you into that email” or “I tweeted with the hashtag I told you to follow.” Everything you want others to know should be communicated through at least three different mediums. You’ll know you’ve done it right if you get feedback.

5. Embrace their perspectives

One of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever learned is that I’m not actually right all the time. Annoyingly. When it comes to running a successful project, you need to embrace a whole range of different perspectives on learning styles, and these will not all come from you. Shock-horror.

We need to respect tradition and blend old and new approaches when working with Church projects. You’ll find that having a blend of age perspectives will cover a much broader spectrum that includes learning styles and personality types as well.

Be adaptable therefore, and see older team members as part of the solution and not a roadblock to progress. Recognise their wisdom and abilities genuinely and seek ways to apply them specifically. On a side note; do this without grovelling insincerely – they’re old enough to see through you!

Finally, consider a mentoring program where the main intention is to actively encourage older team members to mentor and coach younger members. This will expose everyone to more perspectives while increasing the value you show to older generations.

6. Cultivate the right environment

The meetings and interactions that you have with your team should consistently cultivate a safe, secure, friendly, open and compassionate environment. Don’t hide from conflict and don’t engage in gossip – however vulnerable you might feel.

Recognise the different needs and working styles that older generations might have, responding with specific assurances and opportunities. Try to provide training, especially on things like technology, so that everyone is on equal footing no matter their background.

7. Be a leader

With all the listening, assurances, and vulnerability you could be forgiven for thinking that you shouldn’t actually lead. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Everyone in your team – including older generations – are expecting you to be solid, making decisions, resolving conflict, and setting tone and direction. Don’t feel embarrassed or inappropriately unworthy about the position God has called you to. Seek consistent respect rather than constant approval. Paul’s advice to young leader Timothy on how to lead older teams is simply this, ‘don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, rather set an example in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity.’

You should not, however, come across as autocratic or overly authoritarian. It’s possible to make your expectations clear without lording it over people – any episode of The Apprentice can tell you that!

So stand firm and resist intimidation – but do so respectfully.

Tim Gough

Tim Gough

Tim is the Director of Youth For Christ in Llandudno, the Editor of youthworkhacks.com and a freelance writer at timgough.co. He is passionate about reaching for a professional and practical approach that makes youth work really work!

Currently living with his Californian wife in the beautiful surrounds of North Wales, Tim can often be found in sea front coffeeshops with his faithful MacBook, hammering away at one of his many ongoing projects.
Tim Gough

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