When I finished my Electrical Engineering degree in 2011, I had no idea what it meant to be managing other people. The only two activities that I knew managers did for certain were: sit in an office drinking coffee and stop by employees cubes unexpectedly to make sure they weren’t on Facebook. At the time, I didn’t really have an interest in management nor did I think I had the qualifications. In my mind, being a manager required at least a decade of seniority as well as a solid amount of facial hair.
Two years into my career, from the ages of 23 to 24, I found myself managing two separate engineering/manufacturing groups for a medical device company, each for 6 months.
The first job consisted of overseeing a Packaging Engineering testing lab as well as managing the lab’s four tenured employees. Essentially, we observed whether or not packed boxes of product would break if we dropped them, shook them, and/or subjected them to extreme temperatures. In addition to managing the lab’s testing throughput, I was also responsible for helping re-organize the lab’s layout and procuring new testing equipment.
The second job was overseeing a medical device manufacturing production line and managing the 33 individuals who worked on the line. The production area itself was a cleanroom, and the device being manufactured eventually got implanted into the heart. It was a high precision process with quite a bit of variability. Because of this variability, it was not uncommon to run into equipment, operator, and process issues that needed to be fixed. In addition to managing the training, communication, and HR requirements of the assemblers, I was responsible for ensuring we hit monthly production goals. It was a much faster paced and intense environment than my previous management role.
Without a doubt, those two jobs were some of the most enlightening and challenging times of my career. I messed up A LOT, but I also learned a lot about how to effectively gain trust from older individuals and lead them successfully.
Here are my major takeaways from managing 33 people twice my age.
1. Strive to develop rapport with your team; amicable relationships set the groundwork for team chemistry and future success.
- Get to know your team on a personal level—this not only shows you care and are indeed a real human being, but can help you understand what at work motivates them on a personal level.
- People really do appreciate you showing that you care about their personal life (and hopefully you actually do care).
- Questions like: “Hello Gary, how is your eldest son Todd doing these days?” will shotgun you to success.
- Especially when managing older employees, treat them with the same respect you would treat anyone older than you. Just because you’re their boss doesn’t mean you have the right to be condescending.
2. Help your employees grow professionally by using managing people (not employees)
- Understand the ‘why’ behind all of your employees. What is driving them? Where do they want to progress in their career?
- Find opportunities for your employees to attend workshops or internal education that are in line with their goals.
- Give your employees regular, honest feedback. (The ‘Crucial Conversations’ book and course has some great advice on how to approach these discussions.)
- Oftentimes, older employees oftentimes don’t take to kindly to being told what to do by young whippersnappers. Be up front about your limited perspective, and, if an employee is being especially obstinate, let them know that you want to practice giving them feedback because you are working on it yourself.
- Provide positive feedback to accompany any negative feedback, be clear that your intention behind the feedback is because you want to help them develop, portray negative feedback as opportunities for development.
3. Involve your team in the decision making process; make your expectations as well as the reasons behind your expectations clear.
- Employees are more inclined to listen to you and to buy in to the vision you’ve set if you are able to clearly communicate that vision to them.
- Don’t operate in a silo; people will trust you if they understand and agree with the motives behind your decisions.
- Especially when managing older employees, it’s paramount to get their consultation when making key decisions. Most likely, they know much more than you and you will both be better off!
4. Make life as easy as possible for your employees.
- Employees should be freed up to do exactly what they are good at; as much as possible, eliminate non value-added work from their plate.
- Employees should never be left to guess what they should do. They should know what their projects are, when they are due, and what larger strategy the project ties into.
- Letting your team know up front that you are there to help make their job easier is a great way to get buy in, especially from individuals who are older than you.
- Don’t present yourself as their overlord or superior, there to micro-manage them. Instead, view the relationship as one where your job is to help organize their work and make decisions on their behalf as best as possible.
5. Develop a group mission statement.
- Even for smaller groups, it helps to have a mission statement to put your work into perspective.
- You should be able to tie any of your group’s projects into this mission. If a project seems to be out of line, perhaps you need to re-examine its value.
- Shy away from mission statements like “Make more money for our DVP, Jim Sanders.” Choose statements like “Deliver timely, innovative process solutions to enhance customer experience.”
6. Utilize organizational tools to lay the groundwork for effective team output.
- As a manager and as a team member, there are many pieces of knowledge you need to be able to do your job. Vacation schedule, current projects, future projects, developmental goal plans, etc.
- Develop transparent, shareable ways of tracking these items. It sounds simple, but utilizing a spreadsheet on a shared drive can make a world of difference.
- Use these organizational tools as the foundations for recurring group strategy meetings; this will increase efficiency and effectiveness tenfold.
- Older employees are definitely grateful when a younger employee can step in and provide the technical expertise on newfangled technology, especially when it helps them do their work!
7. Manage stress by being adopting a keep ‘calm and carry on’ attitude
- Your emotions and demeanor can be contagious to your employees: maintain a cool, calm composure as much as possible regardless of how ‘badly’ a situation is progressing.
- For example, if the company has cut your group’s budget and will be laying everyone off calmly tell them, “The company’s expectation is for you to grow your careers with other businesses; this will help develop you as a person.”
- For real though, focus on what you CAN do; be the optimistic leader that your team can lean on.
- In adverse situations, remove emotion and blame from a situation. Focus on what has to be done, who has to do it, and when it needs to be done by. Communicate a clear path forward to your employees and just do it!
Bonus Tip: Hit the weights
- How can you expect your employees to respect you if you don’t even lift?