How to Work For a Younger Manager

Last Updated Mar 24, 2010 6:29 PM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady, 

Two years ago, I moved from an independent consultant to a middle-management position for the challenge of fixing a troubled program. I have been in my field for 20 years and ended up working on a team with a division director 14 years younger. I've cleaned up the program and am now under challenged and micro-managed by someone who doesn't get the big picture. Other team members are all 10-15 years younger, so I have no peers to bounce ideas and challenges off of. I went to the CEO (a long-time friend) to discuss the problem and let her know I am thinking of seeking another job, but I did not get much support or follow up. Should I risk talking with the HR director, with whom I have a more formal and professional relationship? 

I have a little secret to tell you. You've just asked the advice of someone who is undoubtedly younger than you are. Yes, it is true. If you have 20 years of experience in your field, you are likely older than 37, which is how old I am. (I can't believe I've just shared my age with the entire internet. At least I didn't burden you with the true knowledge of what I weigh.)

You came to me, though, because I have different experience than you do. You can bounce ideas off me, and I can give you my perspective, which is different than your perspective.

Your problem isn't one of age difference, but of culture difference. Does company culture matter? You bet. You've been an independent contractor, and now you are in a group. That's a culture shift in and of itself. Plus you're older than the rest of your team members, and that's a culture shift for all of you.

I want you to stop thinking about age, and think about culture. Would you go to the HR director and say, "I can't bounce ideas off any of my team members because they're Black/Asian/White/Hispanic/Female/Male/Texans"? Of course not.

If that was the situation and you felt like you were being micro-managed and not challenged, you'd present your dilemma as, "I'm being micro-managed and not challenged."

So, how do you overcome cultural differences? Well, the first thing is to stop looking at how you're different and start looking at how you're the same. You're all working in the same company on the same projects, with (supposedly) the same goals. Here are some ideas:

Sit down with your director and express your concerns. Focus on the challenge of going from an independent worker to a team member.

Figure out a way to use your strengths to benefit the team. Present this to your director.

Make an effort to bounce ideas off your co-workers. Make a goal to ask questions regularly. (Daily would be a good start.)

Listen to what others have to say. Even though they lack your years of experience, they have their own experiences to draw from. Give them a chance.

Refrain from saying, "Well we used to..." and "When I was..." This just increases the gap between you and your team members. You're all on the same team now.

If you feel you need more guidance, do go to your HR director and ask her about career development opportunities. Or ask for help building communication skills. Keep age out of it. Remember, in the immortal words of They Might Be Giants, "You're older than you've ever been, and now you're even older." The age gap is not going away, but the culture gap can with a little work on your part.

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.

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