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Managers battle it out

28 March, 2010

Over the last two decades South Africa's management profile has changed from largely middle-aged and elderly white males, to a high-quotient of young highly-educated men and women of all races. But their effectiveness is often hampered by aging saboteurs.

"Our training courses are full of young managers who are often battling to deal with older staff who resent them being appointed over them. The problem deepens if they are of a different gender or race group," Liza van Wyk, managing director of two major skills training organisations said.

Globally managers and leaders are getting younger. While high achievement was considered possible for those in their 40s and 50s little more than two decades ago, better education and the rapid changes caused by technology are seeing increasingly young achievers.

Founders of Google

The founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page were in their 20s when they launched the search engine just 12 years ago, that changed the world. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, which has 500 million users is 26.

The World Economic Forum has a programme for those under 40 called Young Global Leaders and in February, London hosted a summit for those mostly aged 25 called One Young World with 1500 delegates from 192 countries.

Better education and a more astute grasp of technology will continue to push more young people to the fore.

Management trainer, Christa Loots agreed that some older staff resisted change and sometimes actively sabotaged younger managers.

"But we also see many dynamic older people leading change and transformation so there are two sides to this coin. I have found that often if a new manager consults with older or more experienced staff first and perhaps gives them new challenges while respecting their skills set or puts them in a coaching mode you can move from resistance to team excellence," she said.

Problems with older saboteurs

"And if you have older staff still trying to sabotage, then ask them why, perhaps they have a valid reason, perhaps the change the new manager is trying to introduce compromises safety, as an example."

Van Wyk founded her companies had a mostly young workforce.

"I have not had many problems with older saboteurs, but our management courses especially those around people management issues are consistently full.

We hear the same complaints from young managers either about older staff saying, "This is the way it has always been done" or younger staff sometimes showing disrespect and trying to take advantage of a young manager."

Research shows that managers will most often tend to hire those who are similar to them, so men educated in private schools will tend to hire other men with a private school background; women who are devout Christians will tend to prefer hiring other women who share similar beliefs and so on.

Young managers face challenges

And what will also often occur is that young managers faced with persistent challenges from older staff members will be more likely to ensure they retire or are sidelined, fulfilling the worst fears of the older staff.

Loots gives the example of a young manager "who spent his first few weeks observing processes and trying to learn. He did not try and make himself popular or be overfriendly, he just watched, observed and asked. At the end of that process he said, 'okay, this is what needs to be done,' and implemented a new strategy. Two older staff resigned, but he had first respectfully monitored everything before making changes."

Management training and labour experts agree that it is best to try and share solutions in the workplace and to counsel those creating challenges.

Staff with financial problems

Why are the individuals underperforming or being disruptive? In many cases with the present economic climate underperformance is related to staff with financial problems, if managers are able to intervene and assist the staff with guidance, perhaps on how to budget better it most often sees a positive turn-around. Increasingly most of South Africa's major corporates whether the top four banks or large retailers like Woolworths or significant manufacturers like BMW have significant investments in financial wellness programmes for staff. BMW experienced significant reductions in absenteeism and rises in productivity with these courses.

Van Wyk suggests: "When young managers have problems with older staff it is advisable for them to discuss the matter in a non-confrontational way with that staff member, have coffee or lunch with them, get your ego out of the way, be humble and discuss how a better working relationship can be achieved. But if reasonable approaches fail, then the manager will need to go the human resources disciplinary route.

"Scientists project that in the first 20 years of this century we will experience as much change as in all of the previous century and after that change will race along even faster. Managers and executives are going to get younger and younger. Companies need to assist them with executive support and people management training. And older staff have to either begin learning faster or more accepting of the imperatives of 21st century change."


Managers battle it out -