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Leading Across Age Groups: Advice for First-Time Managers

October 22, 2021

How to manage the challenges of leading older staff when respect for seniority is deeply engrained in Asian culture

It’s no secret that young talent can bring immense value to the workplace, but Gen Z -  those born between the years 1997 to 20121 - is poised to shake things up. This generation is ambitious, driven and competitive. In fact, studies show that 65% of them aim to make it to the  top of their profession meanwhile only 43% of millennials share this sentiment.2 Gen Zs are interested in changing the world, taking steps to address major issues like wealth inequality, systemic racism and environmental protection3, and allowing personal ethics to guide their professional choices.  This passion may cause them to outpace older colleagues. In Asia, where respect for seniority is deeply engrained in the culture, the rapid rise of young leaders can seriously upset the order within the organizations.

Charlotte Hui shares how her enthusiasm and solid worth ethic as a teen quickly opened up leadership opportunities. Today, she is the Head of Technical Services for Asia Pacific of APSIS, a state-of-the-art platform for hyper-personalized marketing with offices in seven countries. In this conversation, she lets us in on how she managed the challenges of leading older staff.

First steps of young leaders

Organizations are taking chances on young blood. Often, natural leadership ability shines through and their commitment to improvement sets them apart. In highly competitive environments, some people may come in and surpass more experienced teammates by demonstrating the right attitudes, like self-motivation, a strong sense of responsibility and creativity. It’s becoming more and more common now for young leaders in Asia to run teams that are significantly older than them for these reasons. 

Charlotte has firsthand experience with this fast-track into leadership. At the age of 18, she joined a 7-month training programme in Hong Kong. Her stand out performance earned her excellent ratings and an invitation to hone her skills in the United States. Upon her return, she became one of the pioneers of Disneyland Hong Kong leading a team of 20, which included people who were about twice her age. While she did not have any experience in the hospitality or entertainment industries, the transition to a middle management role came naturally to her. She focused on work and executing things excellently, which allowed her to lead people more senior than her even when it was intimidating.

Winning over seasoned staff

Leadership can be daunting for first-time managers, especially for those who are significantly younger than the people they shepherd. Fear comes from inexperience. It is natural to feel a measure of self-doubt and uncertainty in the beginning. Unlike their seasoned counterparts, young leaders may not have a body of work to assure teams of their competence and sound judgment. Trust needs to be earned in these situations. 

Charlotte experienced resistance to her leadership in the form of bubbling tension. The team was dysfunctional, with individuals operating independently and going in different directions rather than approaching problems as a cohesive unit. Instead of trying to convince the team of her suitability for leadership, Charlotte evaluated each person’s strengths and weaknesses. She identified the deficiencies of the older staff and arranged for them to get the support they needed in these areas. She also observed and listened to what was going on around her at work to learn. This sensitivity enabled her to develop a sense of what was going well, and what might go wrong. Becoming familiar with ways to success and failure points helped her make decisions quickly, and steer teams in the right direction. These steps established her competence and won the cooperation of the team, including its more senior members, over time.

Synergy across age groups

Young leaders may be inclined to zero in on their own abilities to carry the whole team. Maturing in our leadership roles, we come to realize that coaching and architecting teams is about bringing puzzle pieces into their places. The process of finding this fit is both dynamic and organic, as Charlotte points out. 

She was intentional in pairing up younger and older team members based on complementary skills sets. In some instances, she would step in if the matter was within her wheelhouse. The reallocation of resources to optimize performance became a turning point for her team. As junior members were able to meaningfully assist senior staff, a balance was struck and everyone was in a better position to discuss issues more honestly and openly. Galvanizing support across varying age groups and levels of experience allowed teamwork to flourish.

Final thoughts

Strong leadership can cut across age barriers and bring people together. Here are three nuggets of wisdom Charlotte passes on to young leaders.

  1. Be confident. Confidence comes from experience - from making both right and wrong decisions. Never feel defeated by a wrong decision. Instead, learn and turn it around.
  2. Healthy teams have a multiplier effect. Build trust, honesty and openness. 
  3. Be humble, patient, kind and sensitive. Listen. 




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