Seven Ways to Connect With Someone Older Than You

It’s not uncommon to find yourself working with a client who is quite a bit older than you. You might be a 35 year-old woman, for example, who needs to build a relationship with a 60 year-old chief financial officer who is male. It may seem, on the surface at least, that you have very little in common. And furthermore, the client who is older may view you as inexperienced, at least relative to other advisors or providers they use.

Teamwork in office

I started out my own career in management consulting at a fairly young age, and for many years all my clients were MUCH older than I was. Strangely, they’ve been growing younger over the years, and now I have a slightly different challenge. But let’s stick to this one.

The good news is that there are many strategies you can utilize to build great relationships with older executives. I’ll mention seven of them:

  1. First, Early on, focus on your specific expertise and experience and on establishing an identifiable area of credibility.  If you have 25 or 30 years of experience, a client may be willing to trust your general business judgment and accept generalizations from you. When you’re younger, however, clients won’t accept your judgments or advice on a broader array of topics until you prove yourself in a specific area. You need the instant credibility that deep knowledge of a specific subject matter can give you. In which area, or sub-specialty, are you going to become a visible expert?
  2. Second, Convey confidence tempered by humility. Communicate your willingness to invest time to get to know your client and understand their business—not at their expense, but in a way that adds value. It’s always bad to be presumptuous or overconfident with clients, but it’s far worse if you’re 30 and the client is 58.
  3. Third, Connect around universal and personal themes. When I was 34 and one of the youngest partners in my management consulting firm, I started work with a CEO who was in his late 50s. As we chatted over coffee, I mentioned a story about calling my father for advice on a very important, personal topic. Suddenly I noticed the CEO wasn’t paying much attention—he seemed to be daydreaming—and I asked him what he was thinking. “Oh,” he said wistfully, “I was just reflecting on your story. And I was thinking how nice it would be if, when I’m older, my sons would still come to me for advice and counsel.” After that, we clicked right away, despite our significant age difference. No matter what the age gap, there are always things you can find in common. And commonalities help create rapport.
  4. Fourth, Build knowledge of your client’s operations and organization. When you’re younger, as I mentioned, you can’t pretend to be a guru who has worked with dozens or hundreds of companies around the world. But, if you can develop a deep understanding of your client’s organization and people, for example, you’ll have a platform to be credible and valued in the c-suite. It creates instant credibility to say, “I spent a day last week visiting your Chicago office and meeting your operations team there…I have a couple of observations I’d like to share with you about some possible opportunities I see…”
  5. Fifth, Ask especially good questions. This is always important, but perhaps even more so with a highly experienced, older client. Use good, even provocative questions to tap into your clients’ experience, wisdom, and also biases. Show you’ve done your homework and that you’re not just on a fishing expedition. Ask about what they’ve tried before, what has worked or not worked, where they think the landmines are buried, and so on. Also ask about their career and leadership experience—What was their most important developmental experience? Who were the major influences in their life? And so on.
  6. Sixth, Understand Baby-Boomer values. Baby Boomers, for example, are highly competitive—after all, they grew up competing with 79 million others for the best schools and jobs; and work is self-fulfillment (click here to read a brief article on boomers). They aren’t so concerned with leaving a legacy (a key concern of “Traditionalists,” who were born before 1946), but they do want to have standout careers. They are motivated by money, titles, recognition, and the opportunity for self-fulfillment. Compared to GenXers (born between 1963 and 1983) they are relatively hierarchical, and making the boss look good is important, since by doing so Boomers enhance their own careers. An example of these differences might come out in planning an offsite meeting. A baby boomer executive would tend to be more restrictive in who could come, limited attendance to a smaller number of critical executives. A younger executive, in contrast, would probably err on the side of inviting too many people in order to be more inclusive and to motivate their team.
  7. Finally, Don’t be overly solicitous or worse, sycophantic. Arrogance or overconfidence is unappealing, but so is excessive humbleness. Despite an age difference, you are still a professional peer who is there to provide a valuable product or service.

What has helped you to connect across age gaps, in either direction? Leave a comment, below.

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