While many people have written about how millennials can manage older employees, none of them tackled the specific case of the Arab world, where working environments have improved in recent years, both in the public and private sectors.
Nevertheless, there is definitely room for improvement; most companies are still male-dominated, with strict hierarchies.
The situation is especially delicate when you are a women executive dealing with older male employees.
When I was 20, I had to manage contractors and freelancers at least 10 years my senior. Two years, and two businesses later, that episode helped me recruit and effectively lead my team, older team members included.
Here is what worked for me:
Don’t hide your age; but don’t act your age either!
When I first started working and was asked about my age, I used to add five years every time. People would still get back to me with a “wow you’re still very young!” But I was five years younger than what I had just told them. It doesn’t feel great when the parking man asks why you aren’t at school before realizing that you actually own the business across the street.
Now, I am more in sync with my age and regard it as an enabler. The truth is that people are going to be asking about your age, and you shouldn’t let that get to you. Part of being a successful business owner lies in developing a thick skin.
If you’re not the business owner but have been promoted to the position you’re in, then remind yourself that at least someone in your organization believes you can do the job. Authority is confidence.
Don’t act your age either. In gathering feedback, don’t undermine yourself in your statements. Skip the “Maybe I’m wrong but…” or the “I haven’t been around a long time, but I think that…”. Speak with conviction and strength.
Doing business in the Arab world is very much personal. So, spend time with your employees individually. Understand what drives them, what motivates them. You might feel like the less time you spend with them, the more they will see that you have little in common.
Keep in mind that a successful business in the region rests on relationships of trust and respect, and only time and commitment allows you to build those. I often ask my employees about their families, their past personal and working experiences and what they hope to achieve in their careers.
This allows me to not only forge valuable bonds with my team but understand how to lead them effectively.
Humility is key
You might feel self-conscious asking about your employees’ opinions on important issues. Maybe you think their “old ways” are not the way forward. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Understand the value of your subordinates’ insights and inputs. Not dismissing their approach and showing them that you take their advice into account, will in turn prevent them from disrespecting your statements and decisions.
Don’t claim expertise where you don’t have it. Explain to them how you complement each other as a team. I started a restaurant at 23 with no previous experience in the sector. I was very transparent with my team and explained how our skills and backgrounds complemented each other. Keep in mind that asking for feedback and advice is very different from asking for permission or validation.
Lead first. Manage second.
Let them see your dream, vision and passion. Give your team a sense of purpose that will surpass any psychological or emotional barrier they might have while working with you. Through a common working culture, you create alignment, even in a patriarchal environment. As for the managing part, that implies order. So, hold your employees accountable.
In the Arab world, saving face is a common denominator in many behaviors. That implies avoiding confrontation, minor and major.
But I learned that directly confronting an issue, no matter your employee’s age, still gets you results. Let them recognize their mistakes and help them work through them. Through discipline and dedication, show them that you can lead the pack towards success.
Ultimately, it’s not all about you. While it might be uncomfortable for you or your employees, this challenging situation is not uncommon, and certainly not insurmountable. It will take confidence, strategizing and a bit of patience from your part.
While it’s okay to be listening to your team and learning from their expertise, just remember that at the end of the day, you’re the one steering the boat.
Chaymae Samir, entrepreneur and business strategist writing about the future of work.