“A flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it. It just blooms” Anonymous
I’ve been working in a corporate environment for 23 years. For the majority of that time, my bosses were men, older and more experienced than me. They were unthreatened by me and did not feel the need to compete or prove themselves.
As I became a woman in my 40s I was exposed to a new challenge – reporting to a succession of significantly younger women. These women had several qualities in common. They were in their 20s, career focussed to the exclusion of all else in their personal lives, full of energy, technically brilliant but with under-developed emotional intelligence. Reporting to a younger boss seems to be a common concern for women in their 40s. Personally I didn’t have a great experience reporting to younger bosses (and to be fair I didn’t handle it as well as I could) so I hope sharing some of the lessons I learnt might be useful.
The timing for me also didn’t help and I believe this is something many women in their early 40s experience. I had my son at an older age and as a solo parent. When I returned from maternity leave I was close to 40, tired from having a young baby and sad about leaving my son in the care of others while I went to work. Let me tell you “baby brain” is real. I don’t know the scientific studies behind it but all I can say is it felt like half my brain had died along with giving birth. Concepts took me longer to grasp and I just wasn’t as switched on as I felt pre-baby.
Women in their 40s reporting to a younger boss
If you find yourself in a similar situation I hope you can handle it better than I did. There were four key lessons this experience taught me.
Put yourself in your bosses’ shoes
“You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”
When I was in my 20s I remember looking at new mothers and thinking they were taking advantage. Here I was, working long hours while they seemed to be constantly taking time off work with sick kids or heaven forbid leaving on time to be with their family. They would come back after baby and want to work part-time. My 20 year old self thought that meant they were off enjoying coffees and lunches while I was slogging away at my job. Of course, now I’m a Mum I understand that is far from the truth.
Having been both a woman in my 20s without kids and a mother in my 40s I can see things from my younger bosses’ point of view. They are at the peak of their career potential, trying to prove themselves worthy of promotion and progression all while managing a working mother who is perhaps a little slower to grasp concepts than she used to be and always seems to be dealing with a sick child. To that type of boss I must have seemed like an obstacle in the path of her progression.
As a mother in my 40s I can see the immense value that working mothers can bring to an organisation. Never will you get a more focussed, dedicated worker than a mother who knows she has limited time to get her work done before she has to pick her child up. There is no time for chats in the coffee room, long lunches or socialising. When I was in my 20s that was not something I would have understood.
While I could wish that the empathy of “walking a mile in somebody’s shoes” was always a two way street the only aspect we can ever control is our own ability to see things through another’s eyes.
Understand your worth
“Make sure you don’t start seeing yourself through the eyes of those who don’t value you. Know your worth even if they don’t”
When I returned to work after my baby I felt very vulnerable. My brain didn’t work the same way it used to and suddenly tasks that would have been second nature felt a bit harder. My confidence in my abilities and my worth took a huge hit. At the same time I was confronted with these incredibly intelligent women in their 20s who made me feel – to put it bluntly – stupid.
As my self worth took a dive I forgot I had 20 years of amazing experience to offer. I completely discounted everything about myself that made me a valuable person and colleague. I compared my ability to quickly problem solve with my boss and came up short. How I felt about myself and my ability to do my job was being determined by comparison with one small aspect of what was required of me. Never mind that my great strengths lie in my ability to teach, train, mentor and communicate – all areas I am better than my younger counterparts. Ultimately I would have had an easier time of things if I had a clearer picture of my worth and the value I have to offer. If there is one thing I wish for all career women in their 40s it is that they stop comparing themselves to their millennial counterparts and instead get clear on the value they have to offer.
Understand your own priorities
“As you age you’ll learn to value your time, genuine relationships, meaningful work, and peace of mind much more. Little else will matter”
When I returned to work my priorities had shifted in a significant way. While my work was still important, my baby was even more so. Relationships with my friends, family and of course my child were number one priority to me. Without realising it, my focus had shifted from the need for external recognition in the form of promotions and high performance ratings to a deeper need to be doing something of value. From discussions I’ve had with friends I think this is a common experience for not just mothers but a lot of women in their 40s.
This change in priorities didn’t align with what was required to be promoted or progressed within my organisation. While I have all the people skills required to make an amazing manager and leader I was not prepared to sacrifice time with my son or my family for the sake of progression. My time is the most valuable thing I have to offer. If I had truly reflected on this I would have made peace with having a much younger boss. Just as I made the decision to prioritise my family they made the decision to prioritise their career and they were rewarded for that decision just as I am rewarded for mine.
Use your experience in a positive way
“The only source of knowledge is experience” Albert Einstein
One of the obvious advantages I had over my 20 something bosses was experience. I have worked in Australia and overseas in several different industries with many different people. Being an empathic person I spent a large amount of time worried about making my younger boss feel uncomfortable with my experience. I deferred to her where I could, hid my experience where possible and tried to make her feel comfortable. This approach didn’t help my self worth and if I’m honest probably made things more difficult for her. With the unshakeable confidence of youth I don’t believe she was intimidated by my experience but my approach did make me come across as lacking conviction in my abilities.
I had the perfect opportunity to use my strengths and experience to create a strong, happy working environment but I didn’t. I truly believe it is possible to use experience in a positive way while also remaining respectful of your boss.
For women in their 40s, reporting to a younger boss is a challenge they are increasingly likely to face. If we can learn to value our experience, understand our worth, clarify our priorities and understand our bosses point of view it can ultimately be a positive experience.
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