November 15, 2021
As new managers fill vacancies created by retiring Boomers, how do their skills compare with the seasoned older managers they replace?
Naturally, we assumed that veteran managers would be more effective on almost every front. To test this out, we explored the data we’ve accumulated on more than 65,000 leaders. We focused on managers 30 years of age and younger (455 leaders) and compared them to leaders over 45 years of age (4,298) to determine the distinguishing characteristics of each group.
Forty percent of the younger group were female compared to 38.5% of the older leaders. This partly satisfied our desire for a similarity between the groups. Yet, the very fact that the younger managers were promoted to managerial positions at a relatively young age indicated that they were primarily high-potential individuals. To be elevated into management at an early age is not common. So already, these individuals stood out. Of the younger group, 44% ranked in the top quartile for overall leadership effectiveness when compared to all leaders in our database. In contrast, the older group had only 20% in the top quartile. This finding sends an interesting message about senior managers.
The 360-degree feedback instrument we use collects data on 49 leadership behaviors. When we matched the scores of the two groups on these 49 characteristics, the younger group ranked more positively on every trait. This is excellent news, indicating there are talented younger leaders in our organizations who will be capable of stepping into key roles.
However, we also identified a group of behaviors and perceptions that challenge the younger leaders we studied. The following themes emerged:
1. Not fully trusted. Teammates did not always trust the ideas and opinions of younger, less experienced leaders. Their judgment was more frequently questioned. At the interpersonal level, there were issues of trust among the younger managers, direct reports, and peers.
This is a frequent issue we face in coaching young leaders. Older team members are often uncomfortable reporting to a young whippersnapper, making it difficult for young leaders to build positive relationships with their older colleagues.
2. Lacking experience and deep knowledge. Even though younger managers typically have more current knowledge and training, their lack of experience leads others to question their technical expertise and professional skills. Because of their shorter tenure, they also lack the in-depth knowledge that others in the organization possess.
3. Not perceived as a role model. Peers and direct reports struggle to see the younger managers as role models. They frequently observe that younger leaders do not walk their talk. Younger managers are more prone to make promises they can’t keep, not because they intentionally mislead others but because others control outcomes. For younger leaders, the path to success has often come quickly, making it more difficult for them to identify with the struggles of others.
4. Insensitive to others’ needs. Because they have faced fewer life challenges in their careers, younger leaders struggle to balance the need for results with appropriate concern for the needs of others. They are not fazed by the need to work 80-hour weeks and cannot understand why others complain. This is not because they are incapable of caring, but they tend to look past these issues instead of pausing to reflect and respond to the anxieties of others.
5. Not capable of representing the organization. When an organization chooses someone to represent them to a major customer or in a critical meeting, they want someone who looks and feels like the organizational brand and who can answer the difficult questions. Younger leaders are less apt to be viewed as able to fill that role.
6. Lacking strategic perspective. Strategic perspective tends to align with experience in an industry. The ability to look to the future is strengthened by a perspective that comes from the past. Younger leaders are perceived as more short-sighted and less strategic than their veteran counterparts. They focus more on day-to-day decisions and put less emphasis on the long-term view.
However, we also found several dimensions in which younger leaders have a significant advantage. Here is where the younger leaders excelled:
1. Welcoming change. The younger leaders embraced change and exhibited great skills at marketing their new ideas. They have the courage to make difficult changes, possibly because their lack of experience causes them to be more optimistic about their proposals for change. They are more willing than their elders to be the champions of change.
2. Inspiring. Younger leaders know how to get others energized and excited about accomplishing objectives. They are able to inspire others to high levels of effort and production to an even greater degree than their more experienced counterparts. Their older colleagues tend to lead by “pushing,” while younger managers lead by “pulling.”
3. Receptive to feedback. They are extremely open to feedback. They ask for feedback about their performance more often and seek ways to digest and implement the feedback. Older leaders, in contrast, tend to be less willing to ask for and respond to feedback from colleagues.
4. Dedicated to continuous improvement. This may be the result of having less invested in the past, but younger leaders are more willing to challenge the status quo. They are constantly looking for innovative ways to accomplish work more efficiently and with higher quality.
5. Focused intently on results. They have a high need for achievement and put every ounce of energy into achieving their goals. In contrast, when someone has been in an organization for a long time, it is easy to become complacent and see the status quo as sufficient.
6. Good at setting stretch goals. The younger leaders were more willing to set stretch goals. Some older leaders have learned to sandbag a goal so they don’t have to work so hard or run the risk of falling short. Younger leaders are more likely to set stretch goals and inspire their teams to achieve difficult tasks.
Virtually all organizations will need to appoint younger managers to fill vacancies left by the retirement of long-term predecessors. Understanding the strengths of this younger group is extremely helpful. The ability to leverage these strengths presents a big opportunity for higher productivity.
But awareness of younger leaders’ weaknesses is helpful as well. Some will only be rectified by the passage of time. Others can be mitigated by coaching and careful selection of assignments that give younger managers the experiences required for development. But new managers and the leaders who support them should start soon – the earlier we can address the challenges and shore up the strengths, the more young managers and their organizations will benefit. Too many companies wait years to train their new managers. Don’t be one of them.
—Jack Zenger & Joe Folkman
Connect with Zenger Folkman on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.
(This article first appeared on HBR)
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