I have often been the youngest person in the room. I still am the youngest person in the room most of the time among other C-suite executives and business owners. I have to constantly remind myself that I am where I am for a reason and because I am capable of doing my job, and that’s okay because I have to believe in myself before anyone else can believe in me.
I have managed a team of people in the past where every one of them was older than me by at least four years. I also had to transition from being their peer to being their leader. I also wasn’t getting any support from my boss to help me be a better leader so I had to learn as I was flying by the seat of my pants. But I took away several valuable lessons from that experience:
- Don’t act like you know everything because you don’t and your team knows it. One of the big turn offs a newly promoted peer can do is switch the attitude on the dime and act like she or he has been in that position for a decade. Your team knows you and what you are made of before you got promoted, a new title doesn’t make you better or smarter instantly, the adjustment takes time, so give your team that time.
- Show your team that their input is valuable and important to you. Meet with your new team in your new capacity and talk about your plans and goals for all of you together and invite them to help you succeed as a team. Solicit input and ideas. You don’t have to do every one of them, but getting feedback helps obtain the buy-in from the team and you never know, you may hear suggestions and ideas you haven’t thought of.
- Be willing to learn from the team members. This point is critical particularly if you joined a new company, but it is also important if you are promoted from within. If you have seasoned team members that know the company well, know the industry well, know your department well and the processes – talk to them. Learn from them. Create an environment of collaboration and show more seasoned employees that you acknowledge their level of experience and value it and want to learn from them. Now, I must caution you here, people may feel upset that you got put in the position of leadership, they may feel hurt because they were not chosen, or they may disagree with the decision senior management made. So those people may not be as open to collaborating with you or helping you. But take the high road and be consistent. A lot of time people feel like the new manager is being fake or kissing up to them and may not reciprocate to the genuine effort to build a good working relationship. The best way to break down that wall is through demonstrating consistency and being respectful and open. Even the toughest old school colleagues can’t resist a genuine good-natured effort forever.
- Be genuine and be positive. No one likes fake people. Why would you want to do that anyway? I know sometimes corporate and business culture bring out the worst in people, I’ve seen it enough times to grow very skeptical of everyone I encounter. I still encourage my peers and employees to keep an open mind. Other people may not be genuine or positive toward you, but that defines them, more than it defines you. What you do is what defines you. In 21st century there is no need to kiss up to people. I know many still do it, but it is painfully obvious and frankly only works on those who like their ego stroked. A reasonable person doesn’t want fake pleasantries, but will greatly appreciate a genuine positive interaction. Keep it real.
- Be ready to make tough decisions fast. Once you get into that first leadership role, you may be faced with some tough decisions pretty quickly. It could be firing someone off your team that you have worked side-by-side with for some time as peers. It could be hiring a new person. What about distributions of raises and performance reviews? It is not easy to make decisions that you know will directly affect people’s lives. Positive things are enjoyable to decide on. Firing someone form your team may leave you sleepless for a few nights. With leadership comes responsibility. It is critical to remember to set emotions aside for the decision making and do that’s truly in the best interest of your business and your team. Once the decision has been made, you can’t loathe yourself with guilt. That’s why it is important to make decisions based on critical reasoning and facts, not emotions. Big decisions don’t get that much easier with time, but you will learn how to cope with the consequences better and remember that you did the best that you could at the time with the information you had at hand.
- Seek mentors. This is huge when it comes to early leadership development. Having mentors is critical for individual’s success. Whether they are from reading some of the best books on leadership (more on that in a later post), or a trusted adviser who either works in your company or somewhere else. The most important part about finding a good mentor, it has to be someone credible, someone you trust, and someone you know has your best interest at heart. I know, my career success thus far is largely attributed to having good mentors both in corporate and entrepreneurial realms who help guide me when all seems so confusing.
- Be assertive. Sometimes you have that one person on the team that just won’t buy in to the fact that you are his or her boss now. They will try to push your buttons, challenge your authority, discredit you, gossip behind your back to turn the rest of the team against you, and just try to stir up general drama. The best way to deal with these “covert operators” is to shine the light on their behavior. When they make that passive aggressive smirky remark in a team meeting, don’t let it slide. Don’t get aggressive by any means, but tactfully ask to clarify their point or elaborate on their comment. First of all, those clowns typically don’t expect to get called out in front of everyone, but even if they are arrogant enough to continue their embarrassing pursuit, just keep asking them questions about what they mean or try to say. Typically what happens they talk themselves into a corner and that will be the end of it. On rare occasions they may have a pretty good idea which is worth considering. But the fact that you didn’t lose your cool and asked many questions to try to understand their point makes you look like a strong and sound leader who doesn’t fall for silly provocations.
- Have fun. Don’t forget to live a little. One of the best ways to bond with the team whether you are brand new to the company or got promoted from within is through a team outing. Do a volunteer event, take the group to a happy hour or lunch, have a team building event or sorts. Even a small gesture to get to know people on a personal level goes a long way. Showing your team you are human and you appreciate their human side too can bring everyone closer and will also help you understand your people better.
- Get to know your team. This may take a while especially if you are new to the company. As a good leader, you need to learn what drives and motivates your people. Is it having flexibility in their schedule so they can go see their kids play soccer? Is it ability to work from home? Is it a financial bonus or some sort of material reward? Is it promotion? Learning and growth? Knowing these things will help you tremendously in motivating individual team members. Learn their strengths and weaknesses. It takes time no doubt, but it is rewarding in so many ways. You will learn how to communicate with your team better, how to motivate them and help them grow, how to assign projects based on their skills to make them most effective and happy. This will also show them you are a compassionate and caring leader which again goes a long way in building rapport and loyalty.
- Beware of “bad apples”. In just about every team there is that one person that pushes the envelope as much as they can. They do care minimum to get by on, they are not really engaged, they don’t care about what’s going on at best, they are just there for the paycheck. It is important to remember to not fall prey into someone like that and make them manipulate you to get out of doing work. First, try to figure out why they are that way. Sometimes it is circumstantial and temporary. Sometimes an employee can turn things around 180 degrees if you find the right approach to them. At other times you just learn that’s who they are and then we are back to making a tough decision: are you going to put up with that kind of person on the team who brings down the morale and sets a bad example for other members or will you let them pursue other opportunities? Decision is yours to make.
- Be respectful of their communication style and relationship building style. Most generation X and Baby Boomer generation representatives are an in-person communicators. They value relationships greatly. They prefer a phone call or an in-person conversation over an email or text. They want you to get to know them and to care. Again, think back to being genuine. Don’t play pretend, invest the time to get to know your people and build a personal connection. You will be much more effective in managing them and getting the most out of your team.
The list gets pretty lengthy. The moral of the story is there is a lot to learn in a leadership role and humility, genuine effort to get to know and build your team up, and respect can take a young manager a long way even with the toughest old-timers. You won’t get everything right from day one. Show yourself and your team members compassion and ask for some patience from them. They will appreciate it.