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.
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?
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.