Managing up: How to manage a baby-boomer boss

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Here’s one of the hottest topics in management training: How to manage the current crop of twentysomethings. Really. Baby boomers are sitting in seminars for hours and hours trying to demystify the alien ways of the new work force.

But what about the opposite situation? One of the most classic pieces of career advice is to manage up: Manage what your boss thinks of you; steer your boss’s plans for you; get your boss to supervise in a way that works well for you. Younger workers need to know how to manage their baby-boomer bosses.

Managing up will not be easy. You’re dealing with someone so different from you that he or she sits through PowerPoint presentations about your emoticons. But there’s hope for you because managing up has always been a generational challenge. Lynn Lancaster, one of the aforementioned consultants on generation Y told me, “All generations are angered that the next generation is not like them.”

Once you’ve established you can reliably meet your boss’s weekly and monthly goals, you can let your boss know about your own goals. When I spoke with Gen-X demographer Laura Shelton, she reminded me that to a boomer, meaningful goals might be a reserved parking space and a new title. So you need to make sure your boss understands that you want shorter-term goals and that you care most about issues like being challenged, learning new skills, and preserving your personal life.

Make your priorities clear to your boss so you don’t get sidetracked in areas that are irrelevant to you. For Francois DeCosterd , a management consultant turned art teacher, problems arose in his consulting job when he found himself working among people so obsessed with rank that he could not focus on the work that interested him. “It is very difficult to find your own voice when you away have to deal with hierarchy and power politics, which are very draining.”

Understand what you can get from your boss, so you can make reasonable, actionable requests for mentoring. When a baby boomer says, “Do you realize how many years of experience I have?” The baby boomer means, “Do you realize how long I’ve paid my dues? Why do you think you can do challenging, interesting, work immediately?”

Don’t be put off by this exchange. Instead, recognize what those years of experience mean for you right now: A lot of experience doesn’t mean someone is clever, likeable or talented. But when you are dealing with people who have worked many, many years, “you can assume they have learned to deal with many different situations” says Fran Pomerantz, executive recruiter at Korn/Ferry International.

So use this person to help you with project management and prioritization because they’ve seen it all before. Your seasoned boss can identify deals that are going to blow up, policies that will derail you, and perks waiting to be claimed.

Investigate which other skills your boss has picked up over the course of his or her long career. Make a list of skills and knowledge you want to accumulate in the next two years. Bring the list to your boss and ask which your boss can help you with. For the others, ask what sort of projects or teams you can get to aquire the skills out of your boss’s reach.

You’re going to get the best results from your boss if you use your boss’s language: The language of diplomacy, says Dianne Durkin, president of Loyalty Factor. You might want to say, “Stop talking to me about my career at this company. I’m leaving in two years to start my own.” But you will get a better response if you say, “It would be a big help to me if we could focus on what I’m doing this quarter.”

The other language barrier you have with your boss is IM. It’s like a poorly spoken second language to boomers, if they know how to use it at all. So effective management of your boss means using email. And take the time to type full words and use a spellchecker; two small concessions to get what you want from your manager.

If you do all this and you don’t get what you want, you should leave. “Don’t sit in a job with a baby boomer boss who doesn’t get it. Vote with your feet,” advises Shelton. “It costs companies so much to replace a worker that they will eventually change. And this will be a better workplace for all generations.”

DeCosterd also advises to leave your job if you don’t feel valued. When he talks about his transition from consulting to teaching art he says, “It’s been remarkable to meet so many people who are excited and supportive about my ideas.”

Understanding your boss is the key to managing up. But what’s the best way to understand your boss? The Myers Briggs survey is a psychological system designed for understanding other people, and it’s a test used by nearly 100% of the Fortune 500 to help senior executives succeed at work. If you understand the test now, earlier in your career, you’ll be able to manage up in a way that will put you on the fast-track to success. Learn how to use this tool in the course from Quistic: Fast Track Your Career with Meyers-Briggs


5 replies
  1. Aviva Gabriel
    Aviva Gabriel says:

    You wrote, “When I spoke with Gen-X demographer Laura Shelton, she reminded me that to a boomer, meaningful goals might be a reserved parking space and a new title. So you need to make sure your boss understands that you want shorter-term goals and that you care most about issues like being challenged, learning new skills, and preserving your personal life.”

    As a baby-boomer myself, and having been the “boss” of 35 employees within my own business, I can tell you that Laura Shelton’s appraisal of boomer goals is patently prejudiced, absolutely ageist, and ignorantly inaccurate.

    My goals – from my first days of work at the age of 16 to this very day – have always been to “be challenged, learn new skills, and preserve my personal life.”

    In fact, I believe that it is these very goals and priorities – which I stubbornly stuck to at the expense of following “normal” career paths – which have led me to a situation where I’m now earning wages rather than salary, and reporting to folks half my age.

    But the bottom line point I’d like to make is this: Most “baby boomers,” especially of my generation, were the ones who “dropped out” of society in our teens and twenties precisely because we refused to settle for “titles” and “parking spaces.”

    Most of us, despite the fact that we’ve had to re-enter the very world we rebelled against in order to make a living, and despite the fact that our ideas of sociopolitical and cultural “revolution” soon devolved into notions of “evolution” by working within hated structures to “make a difference” and “effect change,” are NOT even SLIGHTLY interested in title, rank, perks, or anything of the sort.

    Most boomers struggled mightily against hierarchy. We refused to settle for it in our colleges and universities, and struggled to throw all hierarchical pyramids of authority on their asses by tossing them upside down. Many of us have NOT succumbed to the allure of ego-gratifying bestowals of rank and privilege from the “powers-that-be.”

    Laura Shelton is probably describing a small subset of boomers, I imagine. But she’s not describing my generation, that’s for sure. She’s not describing the “creatives” and “change agents” and highly proactive, pioneering boomers that I consider my “tribe.” Not at ALL.

  2. Babies
    Babies says:

    The trick is to stay calm. As a young mother I would never freak out and so my daughter became very easy going and relaxed all the time. Remember that they can read off of your emotions.

  3. Angela DuBois
    Angela DuBois says:

    I, also, am one of those “drop out” boomers, and now find myself answering to people half my age. What I struggle with is getting Gen Y bosses to understand that I want what they want at work. I so do NOT want to be treated like a retired old lady, incapable or unwilling to learn new skills. I HAVE co-workers like that, but I’m not them. I have NEVER been them.

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