How to Manage People Who Are Older or More Experienced Than You

A subscriber emailed me before Christmas with a really interesting question – how to approach managing people who may be older than you and perhaps more experienced too. I replied with some thoughts and ideas and they kindly said that I could expand upon it in a future newsletter.

Today, we’re going to look at a few actionable steps that you can take to effectively manage team members who are older or more experienced than you.

I should say that some team members simply won’t care that you are younger or less experienced than them. However, being faced with this situation can be challenging for a bunch of reasons if someone really does care about it. 

Essentially, you can end up in a situation where a team member doesn’t respect you and feels that you can’t be an effective manager for them. Of course, this isn’t likely to be true based on age or experience alone, but we all have our biases and one of them can be the assumption that they know more than you do. 

Having a team member who thinks that they know everything and that you can’t teach them anything is a tough situation to deal with. 

Let’s look at how to overcome it.

How to approach managing people older or more experienced than you

1. Own it

This one is a good place to start, even if you may feel a little uncomfortable with it.

It’s likely to be fairly obvious to both you and your team member that you are younger and less experienced – so don’t try to ignore this fact and just carry on, especially if it’s something that you’re very conscious of yourself.

Instead, have the conversation up front and address the fact that yes, you are younger and less experienced than them. Take this opportunity to talk about it openly and you’ll avoid any awkwardness and probably be surprised by how many people don’t actually care that much. Even if they do care or find it awkward at first, hearing you address it openly will show maturity and experience that they may not be expecting.

When having this conversation, you can take the chance to explain your approach and ways of working. This allows you to be clear that your focus is on helping them and that your age or experience won’t get in the way of this. 

Again, it may feel a bit uncomfortable to have this kind of conversation, but you are far less likely to encounter problems further down the road if you take this step up front and get comfortable with being a little uncomfortable!

2. Find gaps and opportunities for their development

As we’ve discussed, a challenge with managing people older or more experienced is that they may feel that they automatically know more than you do. So one of the big areas that you should focus on is identifying where your team member has gaps and opportunities to improve their skills, knowledge and experience. 

Once you’ve identified key areas of improvement for them, you can then start to support them in working on those areas and prioritising them. Now, this is key – you may not be the person that necessarily teaches them these skills. For example, you may point them towards an external training course or a conference. You may even bring in an external trainer who specialises in the topic.

By taking a big focus on this as soon as you can and taking this approach to directing them towards help, you’re achieving a few things:

  • Demonstrating that your key focus is on helping them improve and get better at their role.
  • Pointing out (in a fairly non-offensive way) that they don’t know everything and have plenty of areas to work on improving.
  • Helping direct them towards more help, even if it’s not from you.
  • Demonstrating that yes, you don’t know everything – but that doesn’t prevent you from helping them and pointing them in the right direction.

The importance of this focus shouldn’t be underestimated. You’re clearly demonstrating that your focus is on them and that they have opportunities that you can help them with, regardless of age or experience. 

3. Focus on developing areas that are agnostic of age or experience

Alongside developing the skills that relate to their role, you should also look for ways to develop their softer skills too. This is important for any manager to do, but it’s especially useful when managing older or more experienced staff because you don’t need to be super experienced in a role in order to teach them or identify them as knowledge gaps.

Here are a few examples of the types of areas that fall into this category:

  • Holding your team accountable for their roles and commitments
  • Being supportive and having their backs
  • Giving (and receiving) feedback

These are things that you can be very good at, and matter a lot, yet don’t directly tie into your age or experience. Of course, more experience helps to make you better at these, but a lack of experience doesn’t prevent you from being an effective manager with them.

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