Few individuals in the performance industry reach the vice president level by the age of 36. However, even fewer work for a marquee manufacturer, such as COMP Cams, as Brian Reese does. With the flair of an entrepreneur and the experience of a highly trained engineer, Reese has overseen the development of some of COMP Performance Group’s (which includes leading brands, such as COMP Cams, TCI, FAST, ZEX, RHS, Inglese, Quarter Master and others) biggest product hits in the last few years, including the FAST EZ-EFI Self Tuning Fuel Injection and the COMP Cams Engine Oils.
Reese cut his teeth as a GM development engineer before moving on as chief of engineering for SLP Performance Parts—a position he held for eight years. When the opportunity for the vice president of engineering position at CPG opened up, he was hooked. In this interview, Reese provides [SEMA Member News] insight into how a hard-charging young vice president should lead and manage an organization’s best resource—older, experienced employees.
Brian, you’ve been in charge of engineering departments at both SLP and CPG from a very young age. What challenges do you typically face when dealing with an older engineer?
“The biggest challenge I find in dealing with an older engineer is that oftentimes there is a gap of ‘trust’ between the younger executive and the older engineer. Most young executives think they know everything and have the attitude, ‘I don’t need this old guy.’ What I’ve found is exactly the opposite. Older employees have something that young people don’t have—experience. You don’t have to be the smartest guy to have the most experience. You get experience just by living and working. It’s the one thing where there is no shortcut. You can’t cheat it, you can’t learn it at Harvard and you can’t get it any quicker.
The challenge that occurs with an older engineer is that they know you don’t have the experience. So if you demand their respect, you often won’t get it. Sometimes, the younger executives try to then say, ‘we need younger engineers—they get it.’ That is wrong, though. The key is to surround yourself with older, more experienced people, not younger people. The older staff has what you want and what you can’t get without time. I believe it has been one of the key tickets to my success. I have been lucky to have really good relationships with older people and the opportunity to leverage their knowledge.”
Give me an example of when you didn’t best utilize the experience on your team. Who helped mentor you in this?
“Look, I was forced to learn this early in my career. At the first job I ever had, I was in a management position from day one, and what happened was, as a manager, I was asked questions and was expected to answer. The owner said: ‘What are we going to do?’ I didn’t know. I wanted to ask my boss, but I was the boss, of engineering, at least. So I had nobody to ask. I remember early on, even when I was working for SLP, I was the chief engineer, and I didn’t know the answer. I didn’t learn that in school; I was forced to go out and seek better advice. It was the only option that I had at my disposal. So I would say—personally—I had to use older employees from day one because I was forced to.”
Give young executives some advice about what they should do when they run into resistance from an older employee?
“Oh, you are going to run into resistance. Plan on it—you just better expect it. With senior staff, you have to earn their respect; really with anyone. You can’t be crowned respect. You can’t be given respect, you have to earn it. What that means when dealing with older executives, when you are a manager of someone older than yourself; you’re asking someone who has more experience than you to accept what you are asking them to do versus what they might do on their own.
Without respect it’s almost impossible. So you’ve got two options: you can demand it, yell, and scream and you might even get some short-term success. But it’s not sustainable. So you’ll either have them quit, or they will try to get rid of you. The only option is to engage them, listen to them, respect them and listen to everything they have to contribute. Rather than tell them what to do, what you’re really trying to do is get them to participate in the idea. The idea being what you need them to do. You’re essentially getting them to buy-in through helping them see what the right thing is.”
What about advice for an older employee with a younger executive?
“It takes a unique person who is older to deal with a younger boss. Keep an open mind. It’s often easier for an older person to keep an open mind than a younger person. In my experience, older people are easier to deal with as they get older. If an older employee wants to help the situation, he can help his or her young boss learn how to manage. It works both ways. An older guy can go to a younger executive and he can help the younger boss avoid making a bad decision. The younger boss—if he has a half a brain—will start to learn that the old guy is a pretty important key player in here.”
Did you have an older employee—who worked under you—mentor you?
“Yes. I mean, I’ve learned from almost everyone who has worked for me. At SLP, a guy worked for me, he was probably in his mid 50s when I was 25—Tony Calapatch. He read me like a book. He said ‘you’re young, talented, but you are wound up.’ He was like a father figure. He listened to me when he knew he should, yet he helped me when he knew I needed it. He helped me help myself.
He counseled me and taught me how to deal with him—he wasn’t as fast as I wanted him to be, and he got me to calm down a little bit. He made me realize that if an employee isn’t in a positive environment that he likes or enjoys, it won’t last in the long run. The fundamental first step for working with senior staff members is creating an environment in which they are happy.
Summarize the top three things that a young executive needs to know to develop a productive relationship with an older staff member:
- Do more listening than talking.
- Be aware and sensitive to create an environment that older employees enjoy.
- Leverage the experience of your older employees as much as possible. They have it, you don’t. Use it.