The young and the restless
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12 Think About It
14 Mastering the Great Unknown
THE UPSTARTS ARE taking over.
Looking to cut costs wherever possible, many companies took an ax to the organizational chart, leaving younger (and typically lower-paid) project talent in charge.
These days, it’s no longer unusual for veteran project managers to have a boss with a decade or two less experience.
Forty-three percent of 5,200 U.S. workers ages 35 and older said they currently work for someone younger than them, according to a survey released by human resources giant CareerBuilder in February. Of that group, 69 percent of workers age 55 and older said they have a boss younger than them, as did 53 percent of workers age 45 and up.
All of this creates an interesting dynamic. Top complaints cited in the survey from older workers about their “whippersnapper” bosses included:
- They act like they know more than me when they don’t.
- They act like they’re entitled and didn’t earn their position.
- They micromanage.
- They play favorites with younger workers.
- They don’t give me enough direction.
Younger project managers may indeed face a rough reception. A young leader’s experience—or lack thereof—can sometimes prompt skepticism among the “old pros.”
If a younger person’s track record is different than theirs, it’s hard to trust that experience, “especially since there’s less of it,” says Johanna Rothman, president of Rothman Consulting Group Inc., Arlington, Massachusetts, USA. “People who are older do have more experience. But that doesn’t have to mean they know how to succeed better.”
There’s the stereotype: The brilliant young geniuses glued to their smartphones, tweeting at 3 in the morning and tracking project status at 8 that night. But there is something to it...
She recalls a relationship with a slightly older colleague who had difficulty taking direction from her.
“I think he was jealous of my standing. I had built relationships across the organization and I had high influence. He did not,” says Ms. Rothman, author of Manage It!: Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management [Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2007]. “I asked other people to deal with him directly so I was not rubbing his face into the fact that he had to report to a younger woman program manager.”
For the relationships to work, both parties have to capitalize on each other’s experiences and strengths.
Older project managers may need to shift their attitudes, says Lisa DiTullio, author of Project Team Dynamics: Enhancing Performance, Improving Results [Management Concepts, 2010].
“Be prepared for a boss with high energy and expectations,” says Ms. DiTullio, principal, Your Project Office, a project management office (PMO) consultancy in Cohasset, Massachusetts, USA. “Younger people work at a fast pace. They may push for more work to be delivered within tighter timelines.”
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Their eagerness and excitement are contagious,” Ms. DiTullio says. “They often lift others in spirit and morale.”
Then there’s the stereotype: The brilliant young geniuses glued to their smartphones, tweeting at 3 in the morning and tracking project status at 8 that night. But there is something to it...
“They are not stuck in a 9-to-5 schedule. They tend to live a 24/7 schedule. They have all the latest gadgets, making it easy for them to be connected and available,” Ms. DiTullio says. “This makes them nimble and efficient in managing different communications at once. Be careful—you may find yourself more connected to your boss than ever before.”
That tech savvy extends to how young leaders manage projects and teams, often by introducing new collaboration and communication tools.
That said, most seem to realize they’re running a team, not a dictatorship.
“They are more accepting of multiple learning styles and how to best get the work done,” Ms. DiTullio says. “They are capable of multitasking and are less hung up with operating rules.”
But even that can be tough for older project managers set in their ways. “If you like consistent process, be prepared for some curves and shortcuts along the way,” she says.
It helps to understand a younger manager’s expectations, says William Gutches, an IT consultant who works for several young clients.
“Younger managers came up through the ranks differently than some of us older folks, perhaps faster and with less time to let organizational thinking settle in,” says Mr. Gutches, owner of WHG and Associates, King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, USA. “I do my best to try and understand why and how they have succeeded at an earlier age than many of my peers, and what I can learn from them.”
While working with a company to implement a PMO, Mr. Gutches reported to the chief technology officer, a man in his 30s who was used to working on his own rather than as a team leader.
“I made it my goal to stop in to see him occasionally so I could get the latest update on what our client was asking for, getting, and how we were going about building these work products,” he says. “I think he enjoyed my visits and I saw some distribution of work in parallel with my assignment with him.”
But this type of work style and communication can be a sticking point. Younger bosses tend to give team members free rein on projects, while older project managers like Mr. Gutches might be accustomed to frequent meetings.
“Meaningful communication about the reason I am doing what I am doing with a project can be different with younger management. I try to pay particular attention to the directions they give me and make sure I feed that back to them before I proceed to do the work,” Mr. Gutches says. “My usual premise includes the assumption that I have more experience in managing projects and people than they do and I might have a suggestion that they could use to their advantage.”
One way to offer ideas without ruffling feathers is “in an informal coaching context,” he says. “This exchange builds a much better relationship between my superiors and me.”
WITH AGE COMES EXPERIENCE
No matter how much of a wunderkind they are, younger bosses should capitalize on all that wisdom of their more seasoned project team members.
“They have lots of experience, lots of subject matter expertise and know the office politics,” Ms. DiTullio says. “Leverage their knowledge to improve your project management skills and your understanding of the office culture.”
Over the years, veteran project managers “have stockpiled a variety of helpful tools to support project success and meet specific project needs. Suggest a tool swap.”
Her only caveat: “Be careful. Some older project managers who have been around for a while may also be a bit cynical in their views.”
Although it may be a bigger trend right now, the young boss is not an entirely new phenomenon.
With more than 30 years in project management, Ms. Rothman recalls leading a team of people older than her on a software project while she was in her mid-20s. The venture was highly technical and something they’d never done before.
“It took me awhile to realize they were humoring me—‘Sure, we’ll do that,’ but ignoring my requests,” she recalls. “After we missed an early milestone, I talked to each person individually and explained we were going to succeed as a team or fail as a team—their choice. I knew some ways to make it work, but were they interested? Each of them decided they were more invested in their careers than in trying to trip me up or not cooperating.”
The workplace and the economic environment have certainly changed, but the lesson remains the same.
“Younger and older workers both need to recognize the value that each group brings to the table,” said Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder. “By looking past their differences and focusing on their strengths, workers of any age can mutually benefit from those around them.”
Whether it’s age or cultural background, there will always be differences on a team—but those distinctions don’t have to hinder projects. Just as younger workers can bring fresh ideas and new techniques, older workers bring insight and knowledge.
In today’s economy, it all comes down to who can get the job done. “Performance trumps age,” Mr. Gutches says. —Rachel Zupek
PM NETWORK OCTOBER 2010 WWW.PMI.ORG
OCTOBER 2010 PM NETWORK