Old Heads, Young Shoulders

Sunday, February 1, 2009 - 09:43

Over the past few years, a whole era of young managers has been asked to shoulder often huge responsibilities. Sue Bushell investigates some of the ways to manage the risks involved.

The young manager was brilliant and ambitious but barely into his 30s, yet the CEO was so enamoured of his young star that he was determined the young buck would succeed him within a few short years.

However, put in charge of a group of 80 people, the youthful manager was so lacking in empathy that he alienated the entire team. Mistrust and resentment soared, and the group ended up undergoing 180 per cent turnover in 15 months.

"He just came in and basically steamrolled over the top of everybody," says Denise Sykes, Principal in the Organisational Capability practice at The Nous Group. "In the end, the CEO had to put him into a policy area of the organisation where he couldn't cause collateral damage to people."

With the skills crisis continuing to bite and baby boomers either getting ready to retire - or at least going part-time or becoming consultants in their quest for a bit of peace - there's an epidemic of young people getting promoted to senior positions at an early age.

Too young
Sykes says she has seen a 20 per cent increase in young managers being promoted over the past two years in the companies she works with, and is shocked by the trend, because many of those being promoted seem far too young to be charged with responsibility for "huge programs with enormous budgets attached to them, much less the responsibility for leading large numbers of people".

And while many of the young and talented bring a great deal to the organisation - including energy, enthusiasm, willingness to challenge existing cultures and an appetite for change - they also present a risk.

Sykes says she is increasingly being consulted by concerned CEOs; not because these young managers can't get the job done and not because they can't focus on their goals but because of the potential damage they do to people along the way.

"Older people do feel affronted by it. They often feel, as well, quite misunderstood. And because younger people, with no malice whatsoever, will focus on the future rather than respecting those who have been there longer, their seniors often don't feel that their contribution is valued.

"We are seeing people choosing to vote with their feet. Either they will leave the organisation or go to another team, or if they stay, they default to minimum compliance. Affronted by having to work for someone many years their junior, and someone lacking quality people skills, they withdraw that discretionary level of commitment that we ordinarily choose to give," says Sykes.

Risky business
Organisations that promote inexperienced young managers to senior roles are playing with fire, says Graham Nicholls, Managing Partner, Career Bridge International.

With their dynamism and enthusiasm, bringing young managers into a stale and lacklustre senior management team may seem irresistible, however treating some young managers like stars, without giving them the skills they need, signals a failure of leadership and can lead to disaster.

Nicholls says gen Y people are not used to discipline and not getting their own way, regardless of the cost to others.

In one company he consulted to, Nicholls says, three valued people and then the leader walked out the door, costing the organisation around $300,000 plus penalties for contract scheduling failures and, ultimately, the customer.

Nicoline Hermans, a psychologist and organisational consultant at Dijk & Van Emmerik, Netherlands, says: "In my line of work, I provide counselling for managers as young as 28 years of age who are suffering from burnout due to responsibilities and demands they were not able to handle."

Telltale signs include: working extreme hours while reporting that everything 'is going fine'; complaining that their teams are under qualified; and feeling unable to control the amount of work. Hermans says such managers need not only training and testing but also to feel secure enough to ask questions and seek support.

Another answer lies in coaching and mentoring; placing the young dynamic manager with a highly experienced manager acting in a mentoring capacity.

Nicholls says research has shown that mentoring is just as productive for the mentor as it is for the mentee or protege. In other words, what you get is the best of both worlds, a rejuvenated and motivated senior manager and a wiser, well-grounded, up-and-coming young manager.