Entrepreneurs have long built successful businesses by serving underserved customer bases. Like Square, whose co-founder Jim McKelvey realized that credit card processors generate their largest margins off small merchants, but the complexity of establishing accounts and the cost of purchasing equipment were keeping millions of other small business owners from accepting credit cards at all. 

Looking where others don’t look and finding solutions others ignore? That’s a time-tested path to entrepreneurial success.

Hold that thought.

Don was my supervisor for several years when I worked in manufacturing. He was in his late fifties; most of us were in our late twenties. To us, he was old school—and not in a good way. He seemed slow to make decisions. Quick to dismiss input. Too formal, too rigid… experienced, sure, but a little too experienced. 

We often wished we had a boss that was more like us. The new breed: Innovative. Enthusiastic. Willing to take risks. Not set in his ways.

In short, younger.

With time, I came to realize that Don really was set in his ways. But in the best possible way. 

He always treated people with courtesy and respect. He always took the time to seek information and data to evaluate potential changes. While he almost never immediately said “yes” to an employee’s idea, he always circled back to explain why an idea did or did not make sense. 

His experience (read: age) had taught him to embrace a timeless principle: that focus, communication, inclusion, and teamwork can solve almost any problem and achieve almost any goal.

Don wasn’t too old to be our supervisor. His age was largely irrelevant. Who he “was”? Didn’t matter. What mattered was what he could do

And what he brought—with the diversity of his skills and perspectives and insights—to our team.

Diversity matters … especially to your bottom line

Unemployment rates are finally falling

That comes as no surprise to all the small business owners—especially those running food, retail, and service businesses—who have struggled for months to fill open positions. For many, finding (and hiring) new employees is extremely difficult. Yet many potential employees still struggle to find jobs. A study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found that job candidates over 45 years old experienced significantly lower callback rates than younger candidates.

For savvy business owners, that makes “older” workers an underserved “customer” base.

Which creates both an opportunity and a potential path to success. Older workers tend to be more mature. To be more dependable. To have a broader base of business and marketplace knowledge. To have learned tough lessons. To be willing to share those lessons learned. And to seek both flexibility and stability.

According to a study published in Academy of Management, companies with relatively low levels of racial diversity in management were less likely to make good decisions and achieve a competitive advantage. Even a 1 percent increase in racial diversity increased overall revenue per employee by over $1,500. The outcome is similar for relatively low levels of age diversity; a study published in Journal of Management Studies found that a “negative age-discrimination climate” leads to lower organizational performance. 

This makes older workers not just an untapped source of potential employees but also an opportunity to improve the operational and financial results of your business. 

Great, but what about actually managing people who are older than you? Won’t that be challenging? Actually, no.

How to lead older workers

Managing baby boomers is apparently difficult. So is managing Gen Z. And managing Millennials. Countless books, articles, and presentations try to crack the generational leadership code. It’s funny if you think about it, especially since an eight-year study of over 600,000 people found that only two percent of a person’s attitude can be traced to his or her generation. 

That means two Gen Z employees are much more likely to have differences in attitude and attributes than a Gen Z employee and an older employee. As with Don, generation is largely irrelevant because people are inherently different: each of us brings a different set of talents, skills, motivations, and ideas to the workplace table.

One size doesn’t fit all. 

The key to managing older employees is the same as for managing every employee. Forget age or gender or ethnic background or any other generalization and manage the individual. (Also notable, it’s illegal to discriminate based on age, ethnicity, race, disability, and more.)

Start by clearly describing expectations and desired outcomes. Explain how (quality, service, price, etc.) your business creates value.  Explain what truly drives results. Explain how he or she can best serve both external and internal customers. Set concrete goals. And then find out what makes the employee tick. How they work best. The way they learn best. How they prefer to receive feedback and praise. 

Manage the person—not the generation. The best leaders adapt to the needs, interests, and goals of every individual.  They make the people around them better by creating an environment where each person can be better.

Do that, and age is irrelevant.

Except as an untapped source of an underserved “customer” just waiting to be the next outstanding employee you hire.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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