That’s a hot question. More young leaders are thrust into management positions these days. It’s very common to suddenly be “in charge” of a team where nearly everyone is your senior in age and experience.
It’s important to recognize that this situation highlights one of the fundamental differences between “management” and “leadership.” If you lean too heavily on the management side, you’ll likely expect people to jump to it because you’re “the boss.” To be blunt––this attitude is a rocky road to ruin.
The title of “manager” can be given. Recognition as a “leader” can only be earned.
You can become a manager just because someone says you are. Now I hope you earned it, but I have to be honest. Too often I hear about someone being promoted just because there’s nobody else to take the job–or nobody wants it. It’s also still common for someone to become a manager because they’re family, friends or life partners––especially in a small business.
And of course, you may have legitimately earned your position through your performance in school or on the job, yet still find yourself on a team where you’re the youngest or least experienced player.
The key is in the earning part. Again, one person can make you a manager. You become a leader only when the people you serve recognize you as one.
Want respect? Give it first…
The same goes for trust and loyalty. And respect, trust and loyalty are a leader’s three most valuable and important assets. Before you toss this idea in the fluff bin––think about it! What can you possibly achieve without the respect, trust and loyalty of the people you serve?
Too many times I hear young leaders talk about “demanding” or “expecting” respect. People may defer to your position, but that’s not the same as giving you their respect.
I know I’m beating this drum over and over, but respect must be earned, and the first step is to give respect––unconditionally. This means with absolutely no expectation of return. I didn’t say this was going to be easy.
Does giving respect guarantee someone will respect you in return? Certainly not. But disrespect almost always guarantees the same in return. And usually in multiples.
Now let’s take this out of the philosophical realm and make it real. Let’s put it to work.
Steps to earning respect, trust and loyalty…
Start with your most direct reports, but be sure not to ignore the front lines! Set up a few informal meetings––lunch, breakfast or just a nice day break. Think of some questions you can ask that will show that you care, show that you’re interested and that you value the input, experience and wisdom of these folks that were here first. Here are some that emerged from our past workshops…
“Tell me more about what you do and about how I might help you.”
“Can you tell me about the person I’m replacing? What did they do that I should keep doing? What do you think I should do differently?”
“What do you think I should learn about right now to get off to the best start?”
Have the courage to be personal at times. Ask people about their goals, interests, ambitions––and challenges. Ask them where they see themselves in the future. Get to know a little about why they’re working here––and that might have little to do with money.
#2 Stop, watch, listen, learn.
It usually starts with best intentions, but too often new leaders, especially young leaders jump in with preconceived ideas about how to “shake things up.”
You’ll earn more trust by showing that you’re trying to learn about your team. You’re showing respect by actively learning about their strengths as well as what you may see, at first, as weaknesses.
Don’t be afraid to ask what might feel like the most fundamental questions. Most people enjoy showing others what they do––it’s a source of pride.
Of course, the risk is that people will think you don’t know what you’re doing! That’s true, but won’t they find out faster if you just steamroll them with orders and changes that clearly show you’re out of your element?
#3 Solicit input––from all levels.
Let’s work through another real life example…
A young manager is moved from one division to another. Let’s call him Tony. Tony had some experience and had proven himself in short time. A senior leader retired, however, and the organization needed Tony to fill some big shoes in a hurry.
To his credit, though Tony knew very little about how the other division operated, he did his diligence and studied as much as he could in the two short weeks he had to prepare.
One of the first things he did was set up a series of meetings with each part of the team, starting with the front lines. At the same time, he continued to watch, listen and learn on a daily and often informal basis.
People loved the meetings. Tony was clear that he couldn’t promise to fulfill everyone’s wish list, but he expressed sincere gratitude for everyone’s input and guaranteed that he would respect and consider everyone’s contributions.
I can tell you Tony earned a great deal of respect – very quickly. There would be bumps ahead, but most people rallied to help Tony, to guide him when they could and work willingly to make him comfortable in his new role.
This is a short article. We’re just scratching the surface. In our workshops we spend hours coming up with specific action steps. In one on one coaching we customize these steps to your specific situation. The ideas I’ve shared here will help you get started and face this challenging situation with courage.
Ultimately, leadership has nothing to do with rank, title, or position of authority. A leader is someone with the ability to attract willing followers––and someone with the will to serve.
You attract willing followers by earning their respect, trust and loyalty. You do that by inspiring, empowering and guiding the people you serve…
And when it comes to that, age and experience make very little difference.