Leading People With Experience

A common question for new or aspiring team leaders is, “how do I lead someone who is more experienced than me?”. “More experienced” can mean different things here: someone with longer tenure as an engineer, someone who has led engineering teams in the past, someone who is older than you, or some combination of all 3.

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Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

This is a question I can relate to a lot. I moved into a team leader role relatively early in my career, after 3 years as a software engineer. One of my biggest concerns was my ability to lead people who were more experienced than me. Most of my experiences up to that point were of mentoring less experienced engineers (new grads, interns, etc) — I had helped to onboard senior engineers, but never to the point of leading them. Who was I to be responsible for senior engineers if I had never held that role myself?

Members of my first team included 3 senior engineers who:

  • marked my first-year programming assignments when I was an undergrad and they were a PhD student
  • interviewed me for my summer internship with the company
  • had more years experience in the software industry than I had been alive, and who had previously managed teams

It felt very strange to be leading these people — like something had gone wrong somewhere and I was in the wrong job. I still remember some of the questions that would run through my mind:

What can I offer them when they are so much more experienced than me?

What if they disagree with my decisions, and they end up being right?

What if they judge me, and don’t think I’m up to the job?

What if they begin to undermine my leadership, and the rest of the team starts listening to them and not me?

It’s not uncommon for new leaders to feel insecure about these things, but what can you do about it?

First of all, recognise that you are in this role for a reason. You bring a unique set of skills, knowledge, and context that set you up for success, and you have the support of your manager. Always remember this.

At their core, I think the worries I’ve listed come from unrealistic expectations of the role of a team leader. Do you expect your team lead to be an expert in everything your team owns, to be the best at everything your team does, or generally have all of the answers? Of course not — but even though we know this to be unrealistic for others, it’s surprising how often we hold ourselves to a different standard.

The most important skill to practice in a leadership role is delegation. You are no longer doing the work, rather you are supporting the team to do the work. This will look different depending on what the team needs at any given time. Having more experienced engineers in your team willing to take on extra responsibility — e.g. coordinate a large project, manage a relationship with another team, mentor junior people — has a dramatic impact on where you need to spend your time, freeing you up to do other high-leverage activities.

If you’re worried about supporting someone with more experience, have a conversation with them about how you feel. Let them know that you’re aware of their experience, that you value it, and that you need their help — vulnerability helps build trust. This might sound something like:

“Hey, I recognise I’m new to this role, and it’s going to be a learning process, no doubt I will make some mistakes along the way. I would really appreciate your help and support as I go. If you’re not sure about the direction the team is going, or don’t agree with a decision, please speak up, I’d love to hear your perspective. I think the whole team can learn a lot from your experience”.

Also, guess what? People with experience generally understand how organisations work — they know that you’re new, and that you’re learning. In fact, you’re probably not the first inexperienced leader they have reported to — they will cut you some slack if you approach leading them with the right attitude. Treat them with respect, and you can expect it in return.

In preparing for a leadership role, you’ll no doubt have heard about the importance of adapting your approach and style for each individual. No more so is this true when leading someone with more experience. In particular, I’d recommend trying to bias towards coaching rather than mentoring. Coaching was completely new to me a few years ago — I didn’t really know what it was, let alone how to apply it — but now, the more I’ve had a chance to practice being more coach-like, the more it has helped me.

When experienced people come to you with a problem, there’s a pretty good chance they already have some ideas of how they could solve it. Your role is not to solve it for them — or rather tell them how you would solve it — but instead to support them in solving it. This tends to result in more asking (questions), and less telling. I strongly recommend seeking out resources* and practicing this yourself.

When you move into a leadership role, it is almost certain that you will eventually be responsible for supporting someone more experienced than yourself. The common thread connecting the advice above is humility. I now realise the concerns I had were because of my own insecurities as a leader. Gaining confidence in your abilities while remaining humble is critical to lead well. Supporting those with more experience is a privilege, not a threat.

Thanks to Melanie Harries and Livia Dia for reading drafts of this.

* The Coaching Habit, by Michael Bungay Stanier is a great book to get started with coaching.

Written by

Engineering leader at Bloomberg. All opinions are my own.

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