What it’s like to manage people twice your age

Published August 7, 2017   Posted in Working

I was 32, and in a single day, I got an opportunity to jump several layers of management – to go from a common staff member writing software to the Director of Information Technology. This was seriously humbling in an “I’m a badass” kind of way.

Really wish I had the opportunity to work with this guy. He looks like a bad ass.

That morning, I went to work as I always did. Walked into the office around 6:30am and robotically commuted straight back to the kitchen, fixed me a cup of coffee and relaxed for a bit in my cubicle – my mind on things other than work, which was its typical state of being when I worked a full-time job. I went on about my work as normal. Typed shit into the computer. Responded to emails. Typical stuff.

Strange thing was…my boss (and his boss), who occupied windowed offices on the perimeter of our cube incubator, was nowhere to be found. They disappeared. I figured that they were in meetings upstairs – which were common – and I didn’t give the situation another passing thought. Later that morning, I got called into a conference room with the CEO and his “second in command”.

What he said next shocked me. They told me that my boss, as well as his boss, were fired. They were fired that day and escorted out of the building, leaving the entire information technology department without an official leader. And what they said after that shocked me even more.

They wanted me to take over as the Director.

The day I became the boss

At this point in my career, I was 32 years old. Over the past 10 years, I wrote code for a living. I churned through thousands of lines of code from software product to software product. It was mind-numbing. I wanted to try something different – anything, just to get out from my familiar position in front of a computer monitor typing logic into a compiler. I wanted to give it a try.

And so, I accepted. And that day, I jumped from being a staff member to directing the information technology department that employed a staff of around 15 people. A 32-year-old now manages those twice his age – literally. How is this going to work? I have no practical leadership experience. I wasn’t a complete screw-up in the office, but shit, a director? Answering directly to the CEO?

Holy hell.

I had to learn, and quickly. How do I transform myself from someone’s coworker who bullshits in tune at lunch and bitches about the organization’s management like a good little coworker to that same person’s boss? One person was 70-freaking-years-old!

What I learned about managing people twice my age

Here’s the deal: Managing someone significantly older than you is no different than managing someone your own age. Or younger. The same shit applies, but trust me, I’m not going to preach to you about managerial principles. That’s not what this blog is about. This blog is about how I did it, and I’m about to tell you.

Management is about making decisions – Even if they are the wrong ones, I realized that managing people, or processes, or anything is nothing more than the willingness to make a damn decision. And believe it or not, that’s not an easy thing for most people to do. Making decisions without a lot of information. Or knowledge. Making decisions that affect people’s lives. Decisions that have serious consequences if the shit hits the fan. You gotta make ’em. If you’re wrong, then you’re wrong. But you need to make decisions. Door #1 or Door #2, it hardly matters. Pick a damn door.

There was a reason why I was chosen – At the risk of tooting my own horn, I fully realized that I was selected for the position for a reason. These other guys and gals had decades of experience in information technology that I did not have, but yet, I was given the opportunity to lead. I had something they didn’t. I was never the smartest guy in the room, but I apparently held my own. I showed up to work every day on time. I did my job and generally cared about my future. As I’ve said before, it’s not hard to look good in corporate America. In fact, sometimes it’s embarrassingly easy. Even though my coworkers were 10, 20, 30, even 40 years older than me, I’m the guy. Rock on, badass. Rock on.

And when it came to actual day-to-day management:

I took command – Arguably the toughest part, I forced myself to take control of my new position as the Director. I was the boss. My staff needed to realize they had a competent and confident leader right from the onset. They took direction from me whether they liked it or not. Resent the fact that I am merely 32 all you’d like, but when it comes to the job, I am the boss. Period. And to their credit, the large majority of my staff were supportive of my promotion.

I ignored age – I didn’t care that my new “underlings” were as old as 70 and I was 32. I directed them as if I were 70. Or 50. It just didn’t matter. Conventional wisdom and official management textbooks might teach you to show respect to the older folks because they are older and have seen more than you. Be respectful and all that. And you know what? Yeah, no shit. I showed respect to every one of my staff members regardless of their age. I understand that a portion of my staff had already crested the 60-year mark, but when it came to respect, it made no difference. I refused to pick and choose my level of respect based on his or her age. To me, that’s horrid advice.

I gave ownership – The older you are, the wiser you’ve become in your craft. With my “more senior” staff members, I let them completely own their strengths. Whatever they were naturally good at, I designed avenues within the information technology department that let them put their talent to use. Even if that meant restructuring how the work got done, I would try to find a way. And they completely owned it. If they succeeded, they got the credit. If it all went to shit, I’d give them shit. Ownership goes both ways. It’s great when things go well, but not so great when things don’t. They understood what it meant to “own” their area of IT.

I learned as much as I could from them – I observed their work habits. Reviewed their work. Listened when they spoke. These guys had been around the block a time or two (or three), and I tried to learn as much as I could from these guys and gals. The fact was they’ve been there and done that a hell of a lot more than I have. I would have been a fool to ignore the wisdom they brought to the table. Wise leaders understand those they lead. Wiser leaders learn from them.

Now that I’m 36, I realize more than ever that age is a state of mind. A mind game. And like much of life, the more of our minds that we control, the more control we have over our lives.

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26 responses to “What it’s like to manage people twice your age”

  1. Ive actually never managed anyone younger then me. I’ve found mostly what you’ve said here. Instill trust, make decisive decisions, and try to look out for your employees. Do these things and regardless of age most of them will pull for you.

  2. AdventureRich says:

    The best managers I have had are ones who are willing to learn from their team and trust me with autonomy (grant ownership). They have also been the managers that are tough in order to make us stretch and grow, but are fair and honest. I have a lot of respect from those who manage teams (and individuals) well… it is not an easy task!

  3. This is my life. When I was 24, I was promoted to manage a team of 12 business analysts. 24. Of course, I took the opportunity because who wouldn’t, but man was it difficult. Many of these points hit home for me. I think the biggest thing I learned was to learn from other people. More than anything, I now know that those on my team are intelligent and extremely capable people and I should trust them.

    • Steve says:

      Wow, nice! Sounds like you had the right attitude during it all, too. Learning from those around you…even if what you’re learning is what NOT to do, is a critical technique to keep improving.

  4. Matt @ Optimize Your Life says:

    This is great advice. I think the combination of respect and listening, while still maintaining decisiveness is key. Make sure that everybody knows that are being heard and considered fairly, but also that once you make a decision it is time to move on to the next issue. That balance is often difficult to find in a manager of any age.

    • Steve says:

      True that, Matt. It’s not easy to make decisions without knowing all possible outcomes. But still, you gotta do it. Otherwise, you can’t be an effective manager.

  5. Church says:

    “As I’ve said before, it’s not hard to look good in corporate ” <=== So sad, yet so true.

    If you can learn the corporate game early on, your career and income will benefit. By understanding have to navigate Corporate America and personal finance, its as if you have this doubling effect from the increases in income and decreases in your spending.

    It is how a lot of my wealth was generated right out of the gate.

    • Steve says:

      It really is all a corporate game, isn’t it? Game is played differently from place to place to an extent, but largely, the concepts are the same. Learn it. Play it. Then, retire early.

  6. brian503 says:

    Great perspective Steve. I was promoted to manager in my IT operations group. The tough transition for me was I was working with a number of friends that I helped recruit into the department. They didn’t take to kindly at first from me going from coworker to telling them what to do. Overtime, working together, challenging them, being fair, I earned their respect.

    • Steve says:

      It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it Brian? It is tough going from coworker to boss. At first, it is strange to both parties, but with time – and smart management – things get much more natural.

  7. DadsDollarsDebts says:

    Management has never been of interest to me. There are times when I think of ways to change or improve the system, but then I realize with management comes more meetings. More sitting in a board room for an hour and listening to people talk with little getting done. Let me stay a soldier for now, maybe in the future I will change my mind….

    I am sure it feels good to be the manager of your own life now! Nice summary of ways to manage others, but managing yourself seems more fun.

    • Steve says:

      I’m with you, Dads. Managing ourselves IS fun, but ironically, it’s also something that so many people don’t take all that seriously. They can manage a team effectively, but sometimes, it’s amazing they can figure out how to dress themselves in the morning. 🙂

  8. I really enjoyed this post . . . along with your ‘not important’ post . . . I, too, rose to high administrative ranks at my university (while still in my 30s). I learned alot. I also learned alot that I wish I wouldn’t have . . . In our 20s and 30s, we’re all still in a ‘should’ mode if you ask me . . . you should do this; you should do that. There’s something damaging about this approach . . . and it’s nearly impossible to avoid because it’s part of the American ideal/culture (i.e., work hard, climb). Stepping back in my own career (afterward) has given me more perspective than I ever thought.

    • Steve says:

      Oh me too. Perspective is definitely wisdom, but you gotta put in the time before that comes. Like you, I learned a lot too. I like to think it’s made me a more well-rounded person, but that probably depends on who you ask! 😉

  9. I didn’t think about it before reading your post, but I’ve never been ‘managed’ by someone younger than me, nor have I managed someone older so it was interesting reading this. Not sure how I would perform in either situation lol. I so agree age is a state of mind though. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Oldster says:

    Well said, Steve. As an “Oldster”, I’ve been in the position you were in, and on the other side as well. As I crested the hill and started down the other side I moved out of management and back into a more “normal” position and my manger was a younger person I had hired and trained. It could not have worked out better.

    If I had one piece of advice for those rising up the ladder it would be that there is no difference between business and personal. It’s not like you are one person in a tie and another in a polo shirt. Be yourself in every situation. Own your shit in every circumstances and the people who report to you will respect you. The natural extension of that is that when the day comes that you report to someone else again, it is more likely that it will be someone you respect, because they learned how to lead from you.

    • Steve says:

      Excellent point, Oldster. The more natural you are in your professional life, the easier it will be to work with you and just get along.

  11. Troy says:

    I too took over a technical team at a relatively young age. I got the “honor” of leading the manager that got demoted from the position I was filling, the person who hired me several years earlier and yet another of my previous managers. I never found age to be a determining factor. I treated everyone with respect and I had good and bad staff members. I found the determining factor was their attitude and work ethic, the lazy didn’t like me the hard workers did.

  12. Mr. Tako says:

    There’s a lot of management gurus that believe they know all the secrets to managing people. I’ve read all those books, and took many classes on the subject…

    You know what worked the best for me over the years? Staying humble. Not tooting my own horn and learning from other people. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the relationships with your employees.

    As you said, age doesn’t have a lot to do with that.

  13. Dave says:

    They selected you for the position because they saw you as being qualified. Becoming a director of a large department at such a young age is quite an accomplishment. From an HR point of view, you handled the situation perfectly. Once you start to treat people differently, you have to be careful of not discriminating against anyone. I use two tools. I use the job description and the handbook. This is your job and these are the rules. People complain about policy, but once you get into management they are a good scapegoat. When in doubt, what does the policy say?

    • Steve says:

      Very true, Dave. Treat people differently and you’re setting yourself up for possible backlash. For me, it was just easier to treat everyone with the same level of respect. I didn’t have the time nor the inclination to pick and choose my level of respect. Everyone got the same.

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