Tips for Millennials on Overcoming the Awkwardness of Managing Baby Boomers

    Scenario: You’ve just moved into a management position in your IT department, and now you have six people working for you. The only problem is that all six of them are older than your parents. What do you do?

    That’s pretty much the scenario I discussed earlier this week with Aaron McDaniel, senior director of global strategy and business development at AT&T, and author of the new book, “The Young Professional’s Guide to Managing: Building, Guiding and Motivating Your Team to Achieve Awesome Results.” McDaniel is one of the youngest people ever to serve as a regional vice president at AT&T, and you may recall that I interviewed him last fall in his capacity as a member of the millennial generation who had already enjoyed quite a bit of business success. McDaniel had some insightful advice for millennials on how to work with older generations, and for us in the older crowd on how to work with millennials.

    Since McDaniel’s new book is all about managing, I wanted to follow up on our previous discussion by focusing on the challenges millennials in leadership positions face in managing baby boomers. I asked him what advice he has for those millennials, and he talked about his early experience in a sales management position at AT&T:

    I’m very much of the belief that your ultimate success in business is more contingent on what you’re capable of getting others to do, as opposed to what you do yourself. I didn’t step in and say, “I’m your boss, you need to listen to me.” I came in and said, “I’m here to help you, to enable you to be better at your job.” Something that really hasn’t been addressed very much is the importance of a manager’s role in removing obstacles. If you look at what a manager does, it’s really setting a vision, and then removing obstacles so the team can succeed in reaching that vision. That approach has really helped me, especially in managing those who are older than me. I find that both with millennials and with baby boomers, if I proactively ask, and include them in decision-making and get their input, whether the decision I make is in line with the input they give or not, the process of allowing them that input is really important. For the baby boomers in particular, it shows I value their experience, and I want to plug into their wisdom, so to speak.

    And what if you get pushback from boomers who don’t think you’ve paid your dues? McDaniel said what he’s found to be effective is to ask them for their advice:

    If I’m able to get a message through the grapevine that there’s a specific thing they don’t like that I’m doing, I can go to them and say, “You’re good at this [specific thing], I would love your help on it.” And then I would turn around and implement at least a piece of what they recommended to me, and go back and thank them. At that point it’s a lot harder to have a problem with me as a manager. … The mode of communication you use is really important, especially with the baby boomers. A millennial will tend to send someone a text message or an email. But you’ll get more buy-in when you call a boomer up, or meet with him face-to-face to talk about something.

    McDaniel added that baby boomers have a particularly strong work ethic that warrants respect:

    Boomers are all about, “I need to accomplish something, we need to get this done, and I will go above and beyond if needed.” Millennials will work hard, but it’s more in spurts because they get disinterested. The sense of entitlement and the impatience of millennials tend to multiply and create the situation where if we don’t get results in something, we get disenfranchised and give up.

    I noted that a characteristic of management in the military is that you have 22-year-old second lieutenants fresh out of the service academies or other universities, who suddenly become leaders of career NCOs who have been on the job since those officers were toddlers. I asked McDaniel if he saw any parallels in the corporate world, and he said I was essentially describing his own experience:

    When I joined the workforce, I actually did what you’re talking about. I went from undergrad into AT&T’s leadership development program. On Day One, they put me in charge of 15 customer care reps, who did billing and order support for customers who were Fortune 500 companies, and half of those people had been at AT&T longer than I’d been alive. In some respects it was a bit of a tough pill for them to swallow. … What happens a lot of times, especially with boomers who aren’t managers and don’t really have a lot of say in terms of what happens with their jobs, is they feel like they’ve lost their voice. If you can give them a voice, along with some respect, it tends to be fairly effective. … Good managers are able to get their teams to perform while they’re around managing them. Great managers are able to drive people to get great results even long after they’ve gone.

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