Analyze This

My Boss, The Whippersnapper

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Business Week

What feelings can surface when you find yourself reporting to someone younger? For some managers, I find, it’s a shock. So how can you take it in stride when you’re older than the boss?

For those who were brought up with the idea of respecting their elders, modern corporate life can get complicated. I’ve known executives who feel it violates the natural order of things to report to a younger person. In some cases they’re ashamed, assuming that it’s a comment on their skills. In other instances, they harbor–and act out on– resentments about a “kid” surpassing them.

If you’re in such a position, first banish all the soul searching about what it “means” professionally. Young bosses abound these days. Some of my CEO clients, by dint of being entrepreneurs or having advanced degrees, skipped rungs on the corporate ladder. And a Capital IQ (MHP) study found that nearly 140 publicly held companies worldwide are led by CEOs 40 or under, about 100 of them–including those at tech outfits–in the U.S.

Another pitfall to avoid is showing off your years of acquired knowledge at every opportunity or delivering condescension along with your advice. Share your experience collegially: You’ll be considered a major resource rather than a threat. And be careful not to misinterpret a younger boss’s working methods (say, a preference for e-mail over talking in day-to-day matters) as a sign of disrespect.

Be aware, too, that the unease is likely to cut both ways. Younger bosses sometimes feel inadequate or guilty when they have power over someone of their parents’ generation.

My “Nobody loves a tattletale” column (Aug. 6) prompted comments from readers outraged by my response to a question about whether to tell the boss about a co-worker’s perceived abuse of days-off policies.

In reflecting on my answer, I realize I’d been swayed by the writer’s casting his conflict in terms of how he’d be viewed (as petty and vindictive) if he complained about the colleague. I didn’t see it–as some of you did–as an issue of ethics and individual responsibility. Not all cases of taking liberties are crimes, and I think it’s important to recognize the difference. So in instances where taking extra time isn’t stealing–at jobs where the idea is to get all one’s work done rather than to be at the office to share the load–I’d stick to my advice about minding one’s own business and letting the boss enforce policies. But I thank my readers for emphasizing the ethical dimension. Fear of confronting a negligent boss or being labeled a snitch can be a rationalization for avoiding responsibility.