How to Lead a Team of People who are Older and More Experienced than You

You’ve worked hard and earned your way into a management position or you become an entrepreneur and start your own business. You suddenly find yourself surrounded by a team of people older than you, more experienced than you, and/or more technically skilled than you in specific skills.

How do you lead people who know more than you? How do you gain credibility when you don’t have the experience to back up your decision making?

Specific Expertise Not Required

Do you have to be an engineer to lead engineers? A computer programmer to lead computer programmers? Does being technically skilled make you a good manager?

At lower levels of management, technical skills matter a little bit more. Being knowledgeable helps you, but it isn’t always required when you are leading a team of technically skilled people. You can and will often have to rely on and learn from the people you lead.

As you move higher up in an organization, you will rely more on your people skills and organizational skills than anything else.

In my current job, I run operations for a organization with 11 functional areas and 49 separate occupational specialties including medical personnel, engineering, transportation, maintenance, disbursing, and others. I don’t have the skills or knowledge that my people have and I feel that that fact helps me lead them better. My lack of specific expertise in each of my people’s technical areas forces me to listen to how they can and will solve problems.

Even at Google, a company known for having highly skilled employees, technical expertise isn’t even in their top 5 behaviors of effective managers. During a detailed study on their managers, called Project Oxygen, Google found the top ten behaviors of their most effective managers. “Has key technical skills to help advise the team” came in 8th place.

Being a Generalist Can Help you Stay Humble

Within my organization, I am a Logistician. Essentially, I solve problems to enable other people to do what they need to do. The military can put me in a variety of jobs as a Logistics Officer to include supervising:

  • Transportation
  • Landing Support
  • Embarkation
  • Maintenance Management
  • Armory
  • Ammunition
  • Operations
  • Engineering
  • Medical
  • Others…

As a leader in my organization, I am not an expert at each of the given skills needed to do the myriad of things that we do. When I started, I knew very little about the majority of the skills that all of people had.

Accepting my lack of expertise in certain knowledge, forced me to include the subject matter experts of my organization in important decision making. As I have discussed in other posts, people feel motivation/excitement about work when they get to make choices and feel that they are heard.

Now, I know a lot more about the specific capabilities of my various experts because I ask people about what they do and how they do it. Even though I often know how we can solve a problem or run an operation, I still find that it is better to let the person who will be doing the actual work drive most of the pertinent decisions for the specific project. I try to focus on setting key boundaries for the scope of project and then provide guidance to the person leading the actual execution of the project.

Behaviors to Develop for Leading Experts and People who are More Experienced

I don’t care how nice or emotionally intelligent you are, accepting that you don’t know jack sh*t about something isn’t going to help you excel at your job, if you don’t exhibit certain behaviors toward those you work with.

Focus on doing these actions to make people want to work with you:

  1. Accept that you don’t know everything
    • Acceptance is the first step in recovering from being an a**hole
  2. Ask your people and those around you about what they do and how they have gotten the success that they have
    • People love talking about themselves. Asking meaningful questions will help you to build rapport with people
  3. Listen to what people have to say
    • Stop thinking about how you will respond. Don’t just hear, listen. Acknowledge what they are saying and continue the natural flow of the conversation by asking a related question
  4. Give people respect by consulting them on important decisions.
    • Specifically, the decisions that will impact them in their work
  5. Avoid telling people what to do. Instead, describe the problem or project and ask them how they will do it
  6. Give feedback and coach your people on their performance

This isn’t rocket surgery…

Anyone can do these things, yet leaders and managers fail to do these simple things to help their teams perform better.

Stop trying to be the focus point of all decisions and start enabling your people to excel at what they do. Let your people make decisions or at least participate in decision making.

If you like the content of this post, please share it or leave a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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