Mind the Gap – Managing Employees Older Than You in a Family Business

It can feel awkward and intimidating for a younger manager to manage older employees.

It usually happens sooner in a family firm because children often move rapidly through the ranks before other non-family employees. They are usually on a fast track and often skip through middle management. Some may even enter at the top management level.

1. Perception

From the start, a young family member entering the family business can already be at a big disadvantage.

Non-family employees, especially older employees, may perceive your fast track as unfair and a form of entitlement. It can be hard to shake this perception if your career path is not handled properly.

Also unique to a family business is that these older employees have watched you grow up either in the business or outside in your early personal life. They have already formed opinions of you in most cases. Most of these employees will accept you, while others may try to take advantage of you and “test” you.


2. The Path You Lead to Managing Them Makes a Big Difference

In our family business, I began working around 12 years old after school and summers.

I began working full-time during my second year of college. When I began working full-time, I worked in a separate small division with very few employees for several years. It served almost like a bridge between being a kid working after school and a more serious career position within the company. After shaking off the younger child stigma, I entered the business from the lowest level position and worked my way up. Working in all functional areas of the business helped me gain experience and working alongside others helped me to develop relationships with other employees. More importantly, together they helped me to have a more balanced understanding of how future changes impacted both the employee and the business. When others realize you understand how change is going to affect them, they genuinely accept you more.


Takeaway: Alan Spoon from The Washington Post – Non Family CEO’s

Alan Spoon, the former President of The Washington Post, spoke at a recent Center meeting and shared some of his experience as a non-family executive in a family held business.

On non-family CEO’s:

A non-family manager during the recruiting process will be especially interested in the growth plans for the business.

They will take into consideration:

  • The ambition of the family
  • The Strategic Plan for the business
  • The family management genuine commitment to growing the business
  • Important that “family is 110% committed”

He said one of the worst things a family can do is to say “let’s grow, but they don’t really mean it”