The Senior Subordinate – Working for Someone Younger

Working for someone YOUNGER than you? Get over it, then get used to it!

It happens. Younger doesn’t mean dumber – it often means smarter.  Your age and experience may be welcomed by these “younger-than-you” bosses, but it’s your responsibility to provide the seasoned touch that you bring to the organization.  Your experience, wisdom, and background may be just what the organization needed to move forward.  So… don’t feel like a loser because someone younger is now your boss – rather, use this opportunity to teach, mentor, and make the best use of your advanced years (relatively speaking, of course).

In my military experience as an officer, age was never a factor to consider in terms of the leader and follower relationship; senior and junior.

In the Army (I trust my Navy friends will forgive me here, and they will understand why) as officers, captains were older than lieutenants, majors older than captains and colonels older than lieutenant colonels and so on – with only minor exceptions. In the enlisted ranks, it’s a different ball game. Plenty of junior officers were younger than their more seasoned and experienced, yet subordinate non-commissioned officers (NCOs). I will pause here to allow NCOs reading this section to nod furiously and exclaim “no s__t,” among other comments. Go ahead, sarge, let it out.

This sets the stage for my very first encounter with the “youth movement.” I had only recently retired from the Army and been hired into my first civilian job since summers in college. As I waited in the firm’s conference room, feeling both enthusiastic about this new adventure and exceedingly uncomfortable in a new business suit (it wasn’t even “Army green”), I scanned the room for a hint of what I might expect. I looked at each of the four walls in the room.  I looked repeatedly and yet could not find what I was hoping to see – an organizational chart! I wanted to see where I stood in the pecking order. Who was above me, who were on my flanks and who might be reporting to me…and where I stood in this brave new world of defense contracting.  No joy. No chart.  I would have to wait for my answer… and the answer was about to greet me. As I was facing away from the door, I heard a soft, female, and youthful voice utter this… “Dave?” In my head, I assured myself she could not mean me!  Again, “Dave?” Now, I didn’t expect to be called “colonel” any longer, but I did think “mister” would be appropriate.  Again, that voice…“Dave?”  OK, she must mean me, since I was the only other person in the conference room at the time.  I turned to say, “hello, I’m… Dave” when I observed, based on my heightened situational awareness honed through more than two decades of military experience, that this was the voice of a young woman (only a couple of years older than my son at the time).

Girl BossShe was lovely, smiling, and engaging as she introduced herself as my new Team Leader.

BAM! OK, new world. Get over it and get used to it.  I did so quickly, I am happy to say.  As it turned out, my new Team Leader was (and remains) about 500 times smarter than I am, and I continued to learn from her for many years. She now has nearly grown children of her own and has been hugely successful in every endeavor of her professional and personal life. Eventually, we worked side-by-side, and then it was my good fortune that she served as my deputy for a few years.  Her brain was evident, but it was her poise and dedication that caught and maintained my attention.  I realized very quickly and forever more that age was not a determinate of capability. I will grant that age does bring about a certain bit of wisdom (though clearly not in everyone), but age and long experience alone do not determine success.

As time went on and the years passed, and the jobs changed, I occasionally found myself as the “senior subordinate,” older than my boss.

In fact, until recently before my second retirement, I was once again in that very circumstance. It’s a good thing I got used to it early on, I guess. I don’t think about it anymore – partly because I am now in my early…no, mid…ok, LATE 60’s and quite naturally, by virtue of the law of numbers, I find myself outnumbered by youth (meaning anyone under the age of 70!)

The Name is Dave; not Colonel, not Mister – just Dave.

Age doesn’t necessarily matter, but intelligence does, capability does, and wisdom certainly does. As the senior subordinate, make it your business to focus on the work at hand, what value you can bring to any analysis or discussion, and how you can help the younger decision maker be more discerning and decide more thoughtfully. Then, once the decision is made, do your best to carry out that decision as if it were your own – another valuable lesson learned in the military.

Dave served a full 22-year career as an Army officer and followed that with more than 2 decades as a senior executive in several consulting firms in the Northern Virginia area. He has managed and led thousands of soldiers, Army civilians, and private sector employees in more than 43 years in leadership positions. He speaks and writes about leadership, relationship management, career transition, and keys to success.  READ MORE

David S. Maurer

Lieutenant Colonel, USA (Ret.) , Project Management Professional (PMP)



Books By Dave

Watering Rocks - How to Fail and Succeed as a Leader - Book by David S. Maurer
Leadership Essentials - How to Lead with Passion, Pride and Purpose - Book by David S. Maurer