boomer boss
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Millennials Managing Up: How to Work With Your Boomer Boss 

In today’s multigenerational workplace, millennials sometimes struggle to understand what drives their baby boomer supervisors. But by adapting their work styles and clarifying priorities, young professionals can gain their bosses’ trust and earn opportunities to advance their careers.

By Sarah Albro and Anne Collier

A Google search for “millennials” will turn up millions of results—18.3 million, to be exact. Articles range from commentary on how millennials (born between the early 1980s and early 2000s) feel entitled and are ruining everything to how they are going to save the world. In this sea of postulating, discussion, and criticism is the simple fact that the workplace isn’t what it used to be in terms of job security, support, mentoring, and opportunities. While millennials move for opportunities, baby boomers often express frustration with millennials for their lack of commitment. And, against this canvas, baby boomers are trying to better understand millennials so that they can work more effectively with their younger colleagues.

Since baby boomers often supervise millennials, the opportunities available to young professionals and their level of success often depend on working well with their boomer bosses. So it’s in millennials’ interest to make a sincere effort to understand what boomers need from their team members at work and how to give it to them. 

To understand baby boomers (born between 1946 and the mid-1960s), it is essential to understand their adherence to and reverence for workplace systems, rules, and norms. This is because baby boomers’ beliefs about how to get along in the world were shaped by the fact that they’ve always had to compete to succeed. Post-World War II schools were overcrowded, and competition to stand out existed alongside a need to fit into the system—all of which created the belief that you win by being competitive, ambitious, and willing to burn the midnight oil. Hence, in the late 1970s, the notion of “face time” at the office was born and gained importance.

By contrast, most millennials value and seek out flexibility as a path to success and a way to build the life they want, which can be misunderstood as a lack of focus, commitment, and willingness to work hard. In working with supervisors of the boomer generation, millennials can avoid this misunderstanding by “flexing” their work style to work within the systems and structures that baby boomers value, trust, and live by. 

If you’re a millennial professional working with baby boomer colleagues—particularly if you report to a boomer boss—how can you “flex” your style? Here are a few tips.

Don’t suffer silently if you feel unsure of your priorities. To clarify, ask your boss, “What do you need from me today?

Shift your thinking about “menial” tasks. If aspects of your job bore you or seem menial and heavily process oriented, remember that your boss views them as crucial. And, given that every organization has systems for accomplishing tasks, think about why the task is important and how it fits into the greater whole. The more you take ownership of these tasks, performing them without being asked and understanding why they matter, the more likely your boss will see you as a trustworthy member of the team. And, if your boss knows you have these tasks under control, he or she can take those items off his or her to-do list, letting you work more independently.  

Stay curious and seek opportunities to learn. Baby boomers have had years of experience collaborating, leading, and problem solving; consider all that you can learn from them. They also are highly attuned to how to succeed in their organizations, so be sure to leverage your boss’s knowledge of the systems and norms at your workplace. Ask questions if you don’t understand the underlying reasons for the guidance he or she gives. When you understand the goals, priorities, and systems in place where you work, you will be in the best position to offer your own suggestions and innovations—and contributing value to your organization is both fulfilling and a sure path to success in your job.

Manage expectations. A big part of succeeding in your role is to manage your boss’s expectations about what you’ll get done by when. Don’t suffer silently if you feel unsure of your priorities. To clarify, ask your boss, “What do you need from me today?” This will help your supervisor focus and will ensure that you both have a clear understanding of expectations. Then, you can reprioritize your other work as necessary.

Once you have a clear picture of your responsibilities and priorities, suggest a system for completing your work while taking tasks off your boss’s plate. For example, you may offer to reply to routine emails once a week or prepare invoices for his or her review on a monthly basis. To keep lines of communication open, suggest that you have regular check-in meetings to ensure that tasks are covered and deadlines are being met.

The more you can systematize, the less stressed your boss will be, and it’s likely that he or she will allow you to work more independently. You’ll also develop a great reputation among managers in your organization, which will lead to more and better opportunities. And that’s a win for everyone.

Sarah Albro is an associate at Arudia, an executive coaching and training firm in Washington, DC. Email: [email protected].
Anne Collier is a professional certified coach and founder of Arudia. Email:
[email protected]

Career Development