Updated: Apr 29, 2022
Kerri Rogan manages a 16-strong, predominantly male team. Many of its members are in their 40s and 50s and have a high level of technical expertise. Ms Rogan, head of reliability improvement for London Underground, is just 30. Some, she says, may have been threatened by her youth and gender, but she adds that by showing people she is “here to help, [she] quickly gets rid of the threat”. “You need to build personal relationships,” says Ms Rogan, who adds that her role is not to “challenge and counter their technical knowledge”, but to “bring pace and energy and seek [their] counsel”. Young managers can struggle to establish credibility and get more experienced colleagues on side.
According to Peter Cappelli, professor of management at Pennsylvania university’s Wharton business school and co-author of Managing the Older Worker: How to prepare for the new organisational order, a younger supervisor must engage older workers as partners. “[They] need to recognise that their older subordinates have a great deal of expertise,” he says, “and understand that their job [as a manager] is not executing tasks, but setting direction.” Prof Cappelli cites the US military as a successful example. In his book, he highlights how the US Marine Corps recognised a problem during the Vietnam war, with young officers failing to listen to older, more experienced troops. They were put into partnerships with older sergeants to improve relations. “The older subordinate is your strategic partner,” Prof Capelli says, “and you seek their advice when making a decision.” One of Ms Rogan’s biggest challenges, she says, has been to understand how her subordinates may have to juggle work with caring responsibilities. At times she has put in long hours, but now recognises that not everyone can do that. “I am at a time when I can indulge in my career,” she says, but she adds that for others, work is not their only priority. “I have learnt to be respectful of that.” Chris Baitup, a senior analysis manager at London Underground, is 41 and reports to Ms Rogan. Was he sceptical at first? “Sceptical yes, cynical no,” Mr Baitup says, adding that Ms Rogan won the trust of her team because she was open and upfront about what she did not know. “She listened to the experts . . . asked intelligent questions and then encouraged and challenged people to find a better way.” Tara Shirvani, a transport specialist at the World Bank in Washington, has found herself managing groups of contracted consultants on large infrastructure projects. Many are not only older than her, but were also once full-time managers at her organisation.
Ms Shirvani says younger managers must make sure they are not a pushover. “Make sure everyone is very clear on what you are doing,” she says. When she took over the management of an infrastructure project in Sub-Saharan Africa recently, her inherited team of engineers and consultants were used to working with autonomy. Knowledge workers such as engineers have more respect for people with similar technical skills, according to Ms Shirvani. “They generally do not appreciate being told what to do,” she says, “especially not by anyone they perceive as less knowledgeable and skilled, which can in some people’s minds be directly correlated to age and years of experience.” At first she adopted the casual leadership style of her male predecessor, but soon realised it could send a signal that she was not experienced enough to be taken seriously. Once she realised that results were falling short, she changed course. “I had to adapt my style to suit the situation,” Ms Shirvani says. “It was key to stand my ground in a respectful manner, while being open to input and being able to recognise good ideas.” She held a brainstorming session where everyone was invited to suggest ideas on how to best deliver in a short time, while making it clear to her senior consultants that if they continued to fail she would replace them. One challenge for Ms Shirvani was older workers who were technology-averse. She organised lunches, workshops and training seminars to help them. “It is vital to provide the opportunities for continual updating of skills,” she says, “so staff remain relevant in the workplace.” Prof Cappelli says younger supervisors are often afraid to hire older people, but for Rashid Ajami, 26-year-old chief executive and co-founder of Campus Society, an online student network, an older worker’s knowledge and experience was essential for him to grow his business. Without a background in computer science, he lacked technical expertise. “As my business is founded on a tech-based platform, I needed someone with experience to help bring my vision to reality,” Mr Ajami says. So he hired a chief technology officer two decades older than him who had previously founded his own start-up and taken it on to a successful sale. Mr Ajami says his CTO brought invaluable practical experience and helped him understand the realistic timeline required to build a product. “He knew first-hand the time, effort and technology needed in development,” he says. “He knew how to work with the latest tech developments . . . to ensure our platform was the best it could be and had the foundations it needed”. “It’s about showing you respect them,” he says. In turn, expectations of a start-up’s young team can be too high, Mr Ajami says, so while the vision and excitement is important, “more experienced staff have helped set more realistic targets.”