Ten years ago, when Cheri Schlegel was 30 years old, she became a run plant engineer at Dow Chemical, overseeing day-to-day operations at the Plaquemine plant.
As she started working nights to learn the plant’s technology and systems, Schlegel recalls her role being met with some resistance from an older male colleague.
“I had a senior plant operator tell me, ‘I don’t need you,'” she says.
Schlegel could see where he was coming from. He had been operating the plant for 25 years or more, when in walks a new engineer, wanting to help.
“I said, ‘Well, I understand, but I need you and hopefully one day you’ll need me,'” she says. “Eventually we formed a good relationship.”
Being a young woman managing older coworkers—especially in a male-dominated environment like the petrochemical industry—can be difficult to navigate. Schlegel found that to be especially true earlier in her career. But much has changed in her 18-year stint at Dow, as Schlegel has climbed the leadership ranks and learned that managing people got easier as they came to know and trust her.
Today she is a production leader at Dow, managing a team of about 50 employees, responsible for the safe production of low-density polyethylene.
“Early in my career I faced more challenges,” Schlegel says. “Coming into leadership was a challenge to earn the trust of everyone. Coming into a department where I didn’t know the people or technology, I had to form relationships. If you can do that successfully and develop trust, leading people becomes easy.”
And it’s not just overcoming the dynamic of being a woman leading a workforce of mostly men, but also bridging the generational gap between younger managers and their older colleagues. For Emily Black Grey—a partner at Breazeale, Sachse & Wilson—the former is the bigger obstacle.
Grey is the manager of the law firm’s health care section, one of the largest in the Gulf South region. She is one of five partners in her section, two of whom are older men. One is a decade older than Grey, who’s 44; the other is two decades older than her.
“Generational differences is a bigger challenge,” she says. “I’ve not spent much time studying gender differences but have spent a lot of time looking at generational differences. Baby boomers, Generation X, millennials—[the generations] think more differently than do professional men [verses] women.”
To bridge the gap, Grey says she did her homework—the No. 1 tip she gives to any manager working with older or younger colleagues. She read several management books, observed other managers and decided what type of leader she wanted to be.
Her approach focuses on helping people be successful as more of a partner, than a boss. She views her role as a service and she works to use persuasion to help move people into the right direction for them and for the firm. She points to the fable of The North Wind and the Sun and the adage that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
Among Grey’s other tips for young managers are 1) Be trustworthy and tell the hard truths with compassion. 2) Be yourself. 3) Don’t be cocky, as arrogance is the “kiss of death.” 4) Have a short memory—meaning don’t hold grudges, let go and move on quickly.
Schlegel takes a similar approach, focusing heavily on gaining trust first, then setting expectations and giving people the tools for success—which makes it easy to hold them accountable.
“Especially as a woman, I’m not a very loud or aggressive person, so it doesn’t work for me to come in and start screaming,” she says. “Different management styles can work and can hold people accountable.”