When you’re a young entrepreneur, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with older employees.
Although older workers naturally have the benefit of more years of experience that could benefit a younger company, there’s a careful balance involved in making everyone happy. Not only do you want your employees to like you, it would be ideal if they also respected you.
As someone who started three different companies in my 20s, I've learned some important lessons on how to achieve this balance. Here are two key management mistakes I made and tips on how to avoid making them too:
You're the Boss
After founding MK Global, a company that created a second market for telecommunications devices in 2002, I hired an executive away from a public company to join my management team. His years of experience were precisely the reason I wanted him to work with me. But since he was older, I adopted a deferential stance toward him. What I thought was the appropriate level of “politeness,” however, translated into me giving him more leeway. And as a result, he missed deadlines, made decisions without my approval and second guessed decisions I'd already made. I hesitated calling him out on these issues directly and tended to speak around the problem when giving him feedback. I didn't set clear enough goals or firmly hold him accountable to his commitments.
Simply put, I allowed him to treat me as a younger, less experienced colleague, rather than his boss. Ultimately, my deferential attitude and the free range I had given him resulted in a dysfunctional business relationship. He challenged my leadership in passive-aggressive ways and became nearly impossible to hold accountable. In the end, I had to terminate him, and I recognize the failure of the working relationship was in many ways my fault. I was the one who had made age an issue, when in fact, the relationship was quite simple: I was the boss, he was my direct report, and it was my job to manage him accordingly.
The lesson? Simply, be the leader, and don’t treat employees differently because of their age.
Leave Your Ego at the Door
Another danger of being too conscious of age as a leader is the tendency to overcompensate for youth with overconfidence. The first time I tried to raise money for Axcient, the backup, business continuity and disaster recovery-services provider I founded in 2006, I learned the importance of staying humble. I delivered my business pitch to a venture capitalist who liked the concept but decided to pass. The friend who introduced us later gave me some honest feedback on the reason: The VC I pitched perceived me as arrogant and it rubbed him the wrong way.
I'll never forget how much that feedback stung. I never wanted to be thought of as egotistical, and, in reality, I didn't feel that confident. However, perception is reality.
The lesson? No matter how right or smart you might actually be, don't be cocky. Not only will you alienate people, but you'll miss out on valuable feedback and great ideas. You don't and will never have all the answers.