Matt Certo was 19 when he started his Web-design business, 22 when he hired his first employee. Now 28, the president of Websolvers in Winter...

Share story




ORLANDO, Fla. — Matt Certo was 19 when he started his Web-design business, 22 when he hired his first employee. Now 28, the president of Websolvers in Winter Park, Fla., is still dealing — and occasionally struggling — with the challenge of being a young boss.

He recalls overhearing one of his older employees several years ago muttering about taking orders from a child. “Within two weeks that person was shown the door.”

Such harsh measures are rare, Certo says.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Instead, “I make it a point with our people who are older than me to put that [age] on the table: ‘Hey, Joe, I understand you’re older than I am and that you have more business experience. That’s one reason I value what you have to say to me.’ “

Though never easy, the challenge of being a young boss may be more daunting today, says John Putzier, a Pennsylvania human-resources consultant and author of the just-released “Weirdos in the Workplace: The New Normal — Thriving in the Age of the Individual” (Pearson Education). Many in their 20s and early 30s see the booming 1990s as being normal, raising unrealistic expectations that success and wealth are easy to attain, Putzier says.

Workers between 20 and 34 make up nearly a third of the total U.S. work force. Of those, 4 percent are classified as “executive, administrative and managerial,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The age group tends to focus on the importance of the individual and eschews the idea of blending into the crowd, but management requires a different outlook, Putzier says.

“If you’re going to succeed as a manager, you have to play the game” of office politics, he adds. “That’s hard for young people to do. They think all they have to do is be confident.”

Certo says young bosses have less of a margin of error than their older counterparts, because they don’t have years of experience to enhance their credibility.

Being younger creates “a certain psychological imbalance,” says Certo, who estimates that at least half his staff of 14 is older than he is. “I have to figure out ways for people to learn through experience instead of barking out orders to them.”

Employees may respond to an exertion of authority, “but they’ll never buy into what I need them to be doing,” Certo says. Instead, he tries to steer employees based on “feedback through their own performance.”

To succeed in leadership roles, young managers must learn to be adaptable, “to lead people the way they want to be led, not the way you want to lead them,” Putzier says. It’s a steep learning curve, he adds.

“A lot of it you can’t even train. It’s like trying to ride a bike by just reading about it. You have to get on it and fall down a few times.”

Luis Ferrer, a 32-year-old ex-Marine and president of his own human-resources outsourcing company, Florida Employer Solutions in Casselberry, Fla., says a combination of confidence and competence will win over employees of any age — as long as they’re good employees.

“People who are underperformers or who have problems, they look at [my] age as something to grasp, to cover their deficiencies. They’re the ones who focus on age.”

Ferrer has been in management almost as long as he has been in the work force. At 24, just two years after leaving the U.S. Marines, he became a branch-store manager for a large auto-parts dealer. Once, while he was leading a training session on how to sell an introductory car battery, a veteran salesman jokingly dressed him down.

“He said, ‘You young bucks don’t know what you’re doing. I’ve been selling batteries since before you were driving,’ ” Ferrer recalled. “I cut him short. I said, ‘That might be the case, but you weren’t selling these batteries.’ “

Youth can be an asset in a boss, according to Luis Diaz, 42, a sales representative with Florida Employer Solutions who says Ferrer is the first young boss he has had. “I think the difference in age is erased by his maturity,” Diaz said of Ferrer.

Michael Toscano says his youth has been more of an issue with prospective employees than those he manages. He is vice president for financial planning and analysis for the Cendant Time Share Resort Group. At 33, he already has five years of management experience.

Toscano chuckles as he recalls older workers he has interviewed for jobs: “They’ll be like, ‘Wow, you’re like really young.’ It’s funny, but only the naive would blurt that out in a professional setting.”

Toscano says he has had little trouble managing his staff but acknowledges his age can be an issue with peers inside and outside the organization.

“You have to speak up, to articulate, to be a little more forceful to convey you are not going to get steamrolled just because you’re younger,” Toscano says. “Those who are older and more experienced can sit back. If you’re younger, you don’t have that luxury.”