When the boss is half your age

That bright techie who arrived as an intern five years ago is now your new boss, leading the project you’ve worked on for the past year. What’s wrong with this picture? And who are the Red Hot Chili Peppers, anyway?

Jeff Kaye, 33, president and chief operating officer of Kaye/Bassman International Corp., a management recruiting and consulting company in Dallas, joined the firm shortly after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1988. His star rose rapidly, and five years ago he became partner with Bob Bassman, now 62.

“I felt that discomfort of achieving much more than colleagues twice my age in the early ’90s, when companies were downsizing,” Kaye said. He compensated by being overly respectful. “I was already service-minded. By listening, I generated more respect from them.”

Management has had to become sensitive to the needs of Generation X Web designers who don’t want to wear ties to work. “They want quality of life, balance of work life, job share, flextime,” Kaye said. Management philosophies are shifting, becoming more service-oriented, to accommodate these new workers.

Patience Helps

Bonnie Russell, who runs her own Web-based legal service business, 1st-pick.com in Solana Beach, Calif., worked for a boss 10 years her junior at Lawgic Publishing Co., a legal software company in Novato, Calif.

“She was probably the smartest person there, and I’m pretty smart,” Russell said. “She had a reputation for having a sharp edge on her words, but she was patient with me. If I didn’t grasp something, she just attributed it to [my having] a ‘senior moment.’ I think she was more conscious of the age difference than I was. The upshot of the whole experience was that it worked out just great. We’re both following our dreams now.”

“Managers (who) are more like coaches support their employees in achieving their career goals,” Kaye said. “They are acting out of concern for each one as a person first.”

Not that it’s all selfless – the pressure is on for companies to retain employees in a labour market that’s short of candidates for information technology jobs. “They may feel, ‘I’d rather be a jerk and a micromanager,’ but it ultimately impacts profits,” Kaye said.

Keeping it in the family

At NetVendor Inc., a business-to-business e-commerce consulting company in Atlanta, CIO John McCloskey, 55, works for the CEO – his son Sean, 33.

The elder McCloskey is one of three engineers who started the company. Sean, a lawyer, provided the financial and legal underpinnings. They say they value each other’s expertise: John’s technical and business savvy and Sean’s strategic knowledge and financing connections.

John said he occasionally chafes because his son lacks an appreciation for his greater experience and historic perspective. “I’m more cautious, having been through things like Nixon’s wage and price controls,” John said. “Perhaps I’m not as optimistic as he is.”

Sean, who started his first business, a landscaping company, in high school and later sold it for six figures, said he tends to focus more on rapid growth. But recent corrections in the stock market are helping John make his point.

“One thing the young guys can’t get until they are old is wisdom,” Kaye said. “You can’t accelerate the learning curve on that.”

At work, the McCloskeys keep it professional. Meshing two strong personalities can produce some sparks, but they switch gears to play golf and spend time with the family.

“You have to earn respect from both sides,” said Martin Jerresand, an application development technologies manager for new and emerging technologies in North America at Sweden-based AB Volvo. At 28, he manages employees ranging in age from 22 to 53. He said he needs to gain the respect of those he manages as well as credibility with the vice-presidents to whom he reports. “You don’t get anything for free,” Jerresand said. “You have to have the support of your managers.”

“It does get personalized,” Jerresand said, pointing to when he has to tell someone who has worked on an application that a decision has been made to use a different one. “We are in the world of the Web, and that technology has only been around for about three years.”

It can be an advantage not to have too much baggage in terms of a commitment to a particular technology or application, Jerresand pointed out.

Good, basic people skills are the answer to solving problems. “You need to see people as individuals and support their needs,” Jerresand said. He said he feels that cultural differences between North America and Europe may work in his favour. “I get my pride from doing well (in) a group,” he said. “If some individual has done something good, I make sure I say they did it.”

Is all this new, young blood a good thing? Kaye says yes. “It’s bringing the emotion, the heart into management.”