If you’re in the business world, chances are good that one day you may find yourself reporting to a boss who is much younger — perhaps even by several generations. A typical example is a baby boomer who suddenly has a boss from Generation X (now in their 30s) or Y (now in their 20s). It can be a bit disconcerting. Here you are with 20 to 40 years of work experience, and the person controlling your fate at work has considerably less. A likely reaction (hopefully unstated) is “I know a lot more than this kid!” It may help to realize that your younger boss probably has a similar disconcerting feeling, but from a different viewpoint. S/he may feel intimidated or afraid that s/he’ll appear naïve or look stupid in your more seasoned eyes. Then there are the usual stereotypes about the different generations that can play out in false assumptions. You may be thinking, “S/he has no work ethic” or “S/he thinks that MBA means that s/he is all-knowing” or “S/he’s going to push all that technology stuff on me.”
Conversely, s/he may be thinking, “This gal is a dinosaur and out of it” or “She has no clue about technology” or “Because of her age, she’s going to be rigid and inflexible and not open to new ideas.” Note that I said these are common stereotypes, proven often to be untrue, but still commonly held. Given this minefield of potential misunderstanding, how can you do your part to develop a good working relationship with your younger boss?
DON’T GET PARENTAL!
If there is one thing that is sure to turn off the younger generation, it’s trying to act like you are his/her Mom or Dad. Friendliness your boss will want, but not the “Son (Honey), let me give you some good advice” approach. Trying to act like a protective parent will backfire. One set of parents is enough for anyone!
BRUSH UP ON YOUR LISTENING SKILLS
It’s very likely that your younger boss is going to be concerned about implementing the company’s vision, mission and values. S/he is going to want your actions to reflect the same objectives and will expect you to “walk the talk.” Really hear him/her out and, even if you disagree, keep listening and asking yourself, “Is there something of value here in this idea?”
The last thing you want to do is shut down the conversation with a quick “We’ve done that in the past and it didn’t work!” These are new times with new people and new ways of implementation. Your best bet is to have the attitude of “How can I help make this idea work?” rather than belaboring all the ways you think it won’t work.
EXPECT A LAID-BACK MANAGEMENT STYLE
Many younger bosses prefer to set goals and then back off and allow their direct reports to implement them autonomously. Many boomers, however, prefer team decision-making with more direction and input during implementation. Utilize e-mail updates to your boss so s/he can store them for future reference and to fulfill your need to have a written trail of what you’re doing, saving requests for face-to-face meetings only for issues that absolutely require it.
WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR THE COMPANY LATELY?
Younger bosses are not necessarily impressed by your earlier accomplishments, including the degree(s) you got many years ago, but want to know what you’ve done to be innovative and successful recently. You can’t rest on your laurels or past accomplishments. Share with your boss the accomplishments and contributions to the company’s profitability that you’ve had in the past year. If s/he is working on a project, see what you can do to make him/her look good rather than focusing on all the things that could make the project fail.
RESPECT YOUR BOSS’ PERSONAL TIME
Generation X and Y expect work to stay at work (except for obvious emergencies) and value their personal/family time. They don’t want to be called at home unnecessarily. Boomers may be in the habit of calling their bosses after hours to discuss work issues and see this as part of being a good employee. Younger bosses see this as off-putting and a violation of their personal space unless the issue is critical. Again, get proficient with communicating to your boss with e-mail and voice mail.
Acquaint yourself with media influences that are affecting your boss so you can “talk their talk.” Not that you want to overdo their generational slang (too much and they’ll think you’re being condescending), but you need to get familiar with what your boss is reading and listening to.
One of the younger generations’ “hot” periodicals is Fast Company; popular Internet sites with Generation X and Generation Y are www.myspace.com, www.ypulse.com (for news and commentary),www.generationwhy.com and www.millennialsrising.com.
Listen for the popular television shows your boss watches and catch at least one or two episodes just so you’ll be able to follow a conversation about these programs.
Note: In the next issue, we’ll take a look at the other side: tips for the boss who has older direct reports.
Judi Craig, Ph.D., MCC, is an executive coach in San Antonio. She is president of COACH SQUARED, Inc. (www.coachsquared.com) and an Atticus Senior Practice Advisor for attorneys.