Advice for Young Managers: R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Aretha Franklin famously sang “R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me,” as a demand for equal treatment for women and minorities during a period of immense societal change. The song’s sentiment can also be your guide in working relationships regardless of your position, but especially if you are a young manager responsible for older employees — some that may have even been alive when Respect was first released.

I am the unit superintendent of the Environmental Operations Unit for Syngenta in St. Gabriel, LA. I started this position at 26 years old, and I am the youngest person to ever hold the post. I have six direct reports — four shift supervisors, one unit engineer, and one day supervisor. While these are my direct reports, I am ultimately responsible for 24 people working in my area. Of the 24, I am only older than four of them.

While I am thankful to have so much experience in my unit, as a young leader, it presents some challenges. I’ve managed any difficulties by leading with respect and humility, thinking and verifying safety first, and continuing to learn about leadership.

Lead with respect and humility. Even though the department or unit may be new to you, it is important to remember that people have been working there long before you arrived and, in some cases, before you were even born. They have been working to understand the details and intricacies as well as improve performance in their area of expertise. You need to understand and respect their efforts.

Although some of the ideas they implemented may not have been optimal, others have helped to make significant improvements. If you are working at a plant like me, listen to the technicians and shift supervisors as they talk about the changes that have been made to the unit. Doing this has given me context that has been vital in understanding the history of the unit, which can help in coming up with new ideas to further improve operations. Experienced engineers and other leaders can also help to orient you. Listen and gather information without interjecting too much of your own opinion.

As a leader, you are now tasked with setting the direction of your group and approving any changes or ideas. To do that, you need to know the history of the department or unit, as well as the status of your reports’ knowledge of the work. Taking the time to listen and understand each of your report’s views and expertise will show you value them and help you to earn their respect. Gathering context about the work will also help you to make better decisions as you lead.

Think and verify safety first. To be an effective leader, you need to know what is actually happening, not just what emails and reports tell you. Most people want to do a good job at work, but over the years might have established shortcuts or bad habits to make the job go faster or easier. These deviations can negatively affect safety. Working in a plant environment, I make it a point to go out into the plant to see it in action and ensure safety is at the forefront of operation. Although you should show respect for your staff and their decisions, it is your responsibility as a leader to establish, define, and model acceptable safe behavior.

In addition to leading and verifying safety behaviors, it is your responsibility to create an environment where people feel comfortable speaking up about unsafe conditions and presenting potential solutions. Continuous improvement is a primary pillar of operation at our facility. It enables all personnel to contribute ideas to make their work safer and more efficient, whether that means adjusting a valve to enable easier access or installing a system to prevent algae growth.

Continue learning about leadership. Leading people is a responsibility, and it requires a lot of time and effort. Fortunately, people have been doing it for thousands of years and have provided a lot of material to learn from. No one expects you as a new and young manager to know everything. In fact, you were probably put into that position to continue to stretch and develop your skills. Take this opportunity to transition into learning from leaders by reading others’ experiences. I recommend Monday Morning Management and Turn the Ship Around as great books for all managers, especially new ones, to read.

Define respect. Leading with humility and respect, thinking and verifying safety first, and continuing to learn about leadership will help you to be a successful manager. Your first step, however, should be to listen to Franklin’s song and figure out what respect means to you. Know how you define respect so you can earn it from your reports and show it to them in return.

This article originally appeared in the Young Professionals Point of View column in the November 2018 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at