A friend asked me to provide recommendations as to what he can do early in his new role to improve his chances of succeeding as a supervisor, and to promote satisfactory performance from his team. He is new to supervision in general, and in particular of employees who are significantly older than him. He suspects that the harder he tries, the more pushback and frustration his efforts might generate. Note: Seniority in this case applies only to age, not tenure with the company.

This question got me wondering that if an individual has reached fairly advanced age (employment wise) but still hasn't mastered some professional competencies that should be well developed by now, is there any way to get them to improve this late in the game? Perhaps the incentives just aren't there no matter what, and it's a lost cause. If so, what does 'effective supervision' of such subordinates entail?

Any thoughts on how he might navigate the situation? What would be the path of least resistance?

Do's and Don'ts?

For purposes of this question, success is defined as achieving greater productivity without going so far as to cause a mutiny.

On one hand it might seem best to keep the status quo. At the same time the manager is ultimately accountable for his team's productivity. This seems to be the fundamental tension.

Interested in thoughts from those who have been in such a rookie manager's shoes, or the shoes of a subordinate of a new, ambitious, yet inexperienced manager.

  • @JoeStrazzere thank you for the insight, makes perfect sense. However does not really answer the question in a constructive and practical way.
    – A.S
    Jun 27, 2017 at 13:30
  • One shouldn't equate age with unwillingness to learn or inability to advance. Many people who are good at some areas and prefer to work with those areas might have no interest in "advancement". For example, I'm good at being a developer and have zero interest in management, so it's not uncommon for me to get younger than me managers. But a possible age difference between me and them is not a relevant factor in our working together. Sep 29, 2017 at 10:53
  • @AllanS.Hansen Agreed and will keep in mind. Thank you for this feedback.
    – A.S
    Oct 4, 2017 at 14:53

5 Answers 5


Old Dogs New Tricks?!

Your friend sounds like he is off to a bad start before he has even started.

Why does he assume he needs to make changes? Oftentimes things are as they are because they work as-is and are less expensive than other solutions.

To be successful he needs to do two things: Build a TEAM and Think in Business Terms.

And, that means:

  1. Collaborate - treat the staff - regardless of age - with RESPECT. ASK them their opinions. ASK them as a TEAM what is best to do going forward. Then act on behalf of the Team.

  2. Changes? He needs to make sure he has a BUSINESS CASE for changes based upon MONEY - not opinion, not "best practice", not "newer is always better" - MONEY! (This applies to everyone's ideas, not just his.)

  3. Introducing change should always be based upon either #1 or #2 above.

If he follows that, he will be an esteemed leader and a successful one. The moment he wants to act like a dog and "leave his mark" he will likely fail.

  • 2
    @AndySmith, No problem! I was actually in a position of being 22 years old, managing people in a multi-national insurance company I thought were old - they were in their 40s - but, now that I am in that range, that doesn't seem old. ;) Anyway, I followed Deming's 14 points - and obtained wonderful results. Focus on the Team.
    – user45269
    Jun 27, 2017 at 0:29
  • So my friend just read all this stuff. He is not impressed. He says he does not need excellent collaborators or individuals who feel fulfilled and treated with respect. He says how they feel is out of his control. He needs subordinates who live up to their paycheck by working hard for 8 hours a day, doing exactly what they are told, exactly how they are told. At the end of the day, bright ideas and respect aside, he needs tasks that go from "in progress" to "done" on time and up to standard. This is the only metric of the teams (and his) effectiveness, and therefore one he focuses on the most.
    – A.S
    Jun 27, 2017 at 13:40
  • Why is your friend not doing his own research and making his own comments?
    – user72031
    Jun 27, 2017 at 14:09
  • 2
    not trying to be snarky, it's just getting a wee bit strange IMO.
    – user72031
    Jun 27, 2017 at 14:26
  • 6
    @AndySmith, Even if it is a cultural issue, does he think people will "work hard" for someone that doesn't know how to lead? He will end up with staff that "quit, but still show up everyday for their paychecks" - they will do the minimum to keep their jobs and no more. He will not maximize their performance, and therefore, he will not be able to maximize his own. Your friend should keep in mind that if all he is going to be is a guy hiding behind a title, he will be very easy to replace. A good manager is a good leader and a good leader maximizes the value of his team for his company.
    – user45269
    Jun 27, 2017 at 15:42

"This question got me wondering that if an individual has reached fairly advanced age (employment wise) but still hasn't mastered some professional competencies that should be well developed by now, is there any way to get them to improve this late in the game?"

First, the bulk of your post focuses on the fact that this team is comprised of people who are older purely in years, so your parenthetical comment about it being "employment wise" is confusing. I am ignoring this parenthetical statement as the overall tone really is about their years.

Why do you assume this ability to improve has anything to do with age? I know 20 somethings who do as little as possible to advance and 50 somethings who are always studying, experimenting, and riding the bleeding edge of new tech.

You can't approach this using the team's age as a frame for developing your strategy. It's pretty cheeky to think that if they push back against him it's because they are "old" and not because he is a rookie manager.

To be blunt: I think you have a problem with ageism brewing here. Treat them as individual people with individual strengths and weaknesses, and address any weaknesses on a case by case basis, as any decent manager would.

  • 1
    This is an excellent perspective, thank you very much I will pass it along. I think he is just a bit discouraged as a result of past experience, but as you say this may have more to do with his inexperience and assumptions.
    – A.S
    Jun 27, 2017 at 13:11
  • 3
    you're welcome Andy. I have had several managers who were significantly younger than I, and it was never a problem. However, they were actually good managers, knew their stuff, and were very effective. For the majority of "subordinates", I think this is all it takes to gain respect and cooperation. Based on your comments to Prinz below (whose advice is solid), I think your friend has a hard road ahead. Makes me think of Cartman: "You will respect my authority!" hehehehehe - doesn't usually work out quite so well. You get what you give, especially when it comes to respect.
    – user72031
    Jun 27, 2017 at 14:08
  • your last statement makes a ton of sense to me personally. I will share this bit of wisdom. many thanks.
    – A.S
    Jun 27, 2017 at 15:02

Let them read.

A few years ago I was discussing with my friend about older and younger employees and how they can develop up-to-date skills constantly. He told an interesting strategy that his company started to use (it is a standard today).

So a company is purchasing professional books every month and simply gives employees free days with only one condition - they must use their free time to read a book. And they must read at least one book per month (that leads to 12 per year).

A company is purchasing up to 10 books every month so the library became an amazing collection of such reads as Traction, Lean Up, Shoe Dog, Zero to One, The Elements of User Onboarding, How to Sell a Wheel, and hundreds of hundreds more...

It lets older employees, as well as unskilled newbies, to speak the same language, to be up-to-date, and the most importantly - to learn and to consume information fast. No matter the age, no matter the experience.

  • This is all great and very inspiring. I shared this with my friend. He reports that he has observed his colleagues go through multiple types of PD training, with zero visible gain. The organization does not have a book budget, but it did provide training PD options which these employees signed up for. In the end it looked like a lot of wasted time with no impact on productivity. At the end of the day he doesn't need them to be business intellectuals and do bleeding edge stuff. He needs them to follow instructions and complete very specific assigned tasks, on time and with quality.That's it.
    – A.S
    Jun 27, 2017 at 13:34
  • 3
    "He needs them to follow instructions and complete very specific assigned tasks, on time and with quality.That's it." - If that's your friend's impression of his role, then your friend has already failed. Sep 29, 2017 at 15:16

I asked a relative, who is in his 60s and has enjoyed a long and successful career in electronics engineering, the question which my friend asked and which I have posted above. I consider his answer spot-on so decided to share it hoping it would also benefit others. As the intent is to spread his wisdom, I hope he won't mind, and might even be flattered?

Enjoy, and please upvote and leave a comment if this resonates. Note: emphasis is mine.

When I started at (...) many years ago there was a massive layoff of folks a couple of months after I started. Dept. head walked up to me one day and said here is the pager and you are the shift lead. There were 4 or 5 techs that I would be responsible for two of them were at least 15-20 years older than me.

When we had our first meeting I told them I was very surprised that I been chosen as the shift lead? Must be working on the Peter Principle rather than seniority and experience. I told them I had managed electronics and appliance technicians in my previous job so I did have some experience. Also, said the I know that if I help you be successful it will benefit all of us and the company. Also, told them that when we are talking about our working relationship I prefer to say they work with me not for me. We are all in the grinder and a job needs to be done.

My job is to make sure that I help facilitate their ability to do an effective and efficient job. I will not ask any one of them to do something that I would not do myself, I strive to lead by example not arm chair quarter backing. I will be the first one there and the last one to leave. If you call for help I will do my level best to make sure your request are answered in a timely manner.

A manufacturing environment can be a brutal place to work there will be times that we agree to disagree but we will respect each other’s opinions and admit if we are wrong. I don’t know everything and never will but collectively we can get the job done.

First and foremost when you are working on that 1 million dollar tool and you have a question stop what you are doing and call me, call the group supervisor or call the equipment manufacturer before you do more harm than good. The telephone is your most valuable asset. These days email would be part of those assets.

Note, when you are dealing with older workers that have not moved up the ladder there is a reason. The two older guys that I managed were both very bright but had other issues that would not make them a good candidate for management. Once they have been passed over a few times they really don’t have a deep seated hatred for a younger supervisor. I always told them I felt lucky to have guys with their level of experience.

My next job I was the engineering manager, facilities manager, process engineering manager and on and on. It was a one man show. However as time went on I hired technicians, facilities people, a process engineer, and an electrical engineer. We were close to the same age so there was little to worry about on the age side of it. I used pretty much the same philosophy of you work with me not for me and my job is to help you get you job done in the most efficient manner. I was never a micromanager. I told them if I have to micromanage them I will be finding someone else to do the job.

I have done some projects in my consulting were I am the project manager and I have managed a wide variety of folks all the way from the parts runners to the PhD that new his field of expertise but little else. All treated the same all given a healthy level of respect, no Napoleon complex here!

  • really, a downvote? I usually have high regard for this great community. But sometimes the ATTITUDE just baffles me...come on SE. Seriously guys.
    – A.S
    Jul 6, 2017 at 13:10
  • 1
    Here, take an upvote. Don't take other's negativity personally.
    – Bluebird
    Jul 6, 2017 at 16:55
  • @FrankFYC Thanks, appreciated. But to be sure, not looking for charity from the community - only common sense.
    – A.S
    Jul 6, 2017 at 17:09
  • 1
    Not charity, but do appreciate the response as it gives more than just a bullet points of "things to do" but rather, a story, what the action was, and the results. In other words, "bullet points" in action.
    – Bluebird
    Jul 6, 2017 at 17:12

You don't manage them

You don't manage them - it's not needed. You give them a goal, and try to help them on the path. they are seniors, they are experimented - even if not in your branch - and they should find their way to do the job. Don't micromanage them, they know themselves better than you do.

  • @gazzz0x2z You raise a great point about micromanagement. What if, unless micromanaged, they do not do what the manager needs them to do, how he needs them to do it, within the timeframe he needs it done?
    – A.S
    Jun 27, 2017 at 13:29
  • can you elaborate on this point of "how he needs them to do it"? that smacks of micromanagement so it would be helpful to understand the specifics of that a bit more. Clearly if they miss deadlines or don't flatly state the deadline is unachievable at any given point, that is clearly a problem. I'm just not seeing what any of this has to do with the age of the people involved.
    – user72031
    Jun 27, 2017 at 14:20

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