When Young Managers Interview Their Elders

by | March 10, 2009

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Normally when a seasoned executive meets with an associate young enough to be his child, the older person has the upper hand. It is natural for the older executive to assume an authoritative tone, evaluating and instructing the younger one. But what happens when the older person is interviewed for a job by someone a quarter-century his junior?

Call it the May-December interview. It is happening as older executives change jobs more frequently, and baby boomers swell the ranks of senior job-seekers, recruiters say. The age gap brings additional tension to a job interview, an experience already fraught with plenty of anxiety.

Among the difficult balancing acts for the candidate: You want to come across as confident and experienced, but without seeming like a know-it-all who can't be managed. Your long work history should be an asset, but can become a liability if you dwell on early experiences so much that you seem ancient.

Etiquette Deprived

On top of that, these younger interviewers -- many of whom have achieved wealth and status at an early age -- sometimes lack their elders' polished manners and treat candidates rudely, recruiters say.

Hal Reiter, chairman and chief executive of New York executive-search firm Herbert Mines Associates, cautions older job candidates not to expect the royal treatment from a much-younger interviewer. When you arrive for the interview, don't expect to be greeted on time, Mr. Reiter counsels. He recalls one candidate who waited an hour and a half to be seen. Finally, the interviewer's secretary came out. Her boss was on the phone and wasn't likely to get off soon. The candidate left, saying if the man needed to see him, they could schedule another meeting.

Once you actually have an interview, your young questioner may be ill-prepared. Perhaps he won't even have read your risumi, Mr. Reiter cautions. Don't be surprised if he hasn't heard of a company that would be well-known to someone older. Mr. Reiter recalls one candidate whose interviewer repeatedly misstated the name of the candidate's previous employer. The candidate kept correcting him, saying, " 'I didn't work for X, I worked for Y,' " Mr. Reiter says. "Finally the interviewer heard what he was saying."

No matter how lousy your interviewer's manners, stay calm and professional. Often younger interviewers aren't the ultimate decision-makers; you may eventually interview with their older boss. But the younger people are gatekeepers and have a say in the hiring process, so you can't ignore them. "Understand these people have the keys to the kingdom," Mr. Reiter says. "The candidates just need to suck it up and wait till the head guy."

Addressing Insecurity

You also need to pay attention to younger managers' insecurities. Trudi Schutz, a career coach in Bethel, Conn., says you should assure your would-be boss that you're not a threat to his job. A young manager may fear that such a talented, experienced executive couldn't possibly be satisfied with the duties of this particular job. What you are really after, the manager worries, is his own job. So address that concern directly.

Ms. Schutz did it herself when she was interviewed by someone about 15 years her junior. He ran a division at a big communications firm; Ms. Schutz would have managed a group in the division. Soon after the interview began, she said: "I'm coming here to help and do my job as well as I can, but I'm not gunning for your job," she recalls.

The interviewer hadn't mentioned that he felt threatened, but Ms. Schutz sensed he needed to be reassured because he was younger and lacked Ms. Schutz's expertise in some areas. "He needed somebody like me, so I tried to sell my qualifications in a way that he could see the benefits I would have to him and at the same time say, this particular job" -- and no other -- "is why I'm here." After she brought it up, "he looked a lot more comfortable," she says. Ms. Schutz was offered the job.

Steve Dempsey, vice president, recruitment, for Corporate Project Resources Inc., a marketing staffing firm based in Chicago, says older executives also need to show they are willing to be managed. They need to counter the fear that seasoned executives may be stubborn and refuse to submit to a boss's preferences. He suggests talking about how you've worked with past managers, emphasizing your flexibility.

Heather Shively Goldman, a partner at executive-search firm Rhodes Associates, says one mistake older candidates often make is explaining their work history from the beginning. With such a long risumi, a chronological explanation makes you seem old and doesn't give you enough time to talk about more recent, relevant accomplishments. When your interviewer asks you to tell him about yourself, "stick to the highlights," she says.

Filed Under: Interviewing

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