Susan Mucha

Are generational differences impacting your program management team’s performance?

Program managers serve as the face of their companies to their customers. As we see a changing of the generational guard, however, it becomes important to understand if that “face” is changing in unintended ways.

Look at any ISO 9001 registered electronics manufacturing services (EMS) company and you’ll find detailed procedures for contract review, new product introduction, measuring performance and integrating customer feedback into performance improvement processes. But these procedures rarely define the softer skills necessary to manage projects well.

Like it or not, rapid technological innovation has had profound implications on our society. People who have grown up immersed in the digital world interact with others differently than those who grew up without computers. Values have also changed over this time period, shifting from job-centered lifestyles to prioritizing personal time over work time. This can create challenges in the multi-generational workplace, particularly in positions like program management where communications skills and responsiveness are critical to project success.

How can these issues be avoided? The first step is recognizing the problem exists. A major source of conflict is often varying perceptions of what constitutes appropriate behavior. Below are six areas to address. The root cause of conflict in most of these areas is different perceptions of what is appropriate. From a program management standpoint, it is becoming more important to define these softer issues because many new workers simply don’t have the experience to make good assumptions in these areas. Here are some ways to address these common challenge areas.

Speed of response to customer questions or issues. Younger workers often feel communication can wait until they have an answer. This can create situations where the customer feels their question or issue is being ignored, even though a program manager is working on it. A quick discussion on the importance of letting customers know you are working on their issue typically addresses this. It is also a good idea to define how quickly that initial response should be given, plus have limits on how long the information-gathering process should take.

Best medium for communications. Baby boomers tend to look at all forms of communications and choose the best option because they’ve used them all. Younger workers may have a preference for emails or texts since that has been a primary form of communication their entire lives. Having a workplace discussion about when it is appropriate to use different mediums can address this. For example, I recently had a time-sensitive situation where a critical documentation error had been made. In contacting the person responsible for issuing the documentation, I found that she was unaware of the change. When I contacted the person who was making the change, the response was, “I sent an email.” There are benefits to following up email with a phone call in time-sensitive situations, since critical messages can go unnoticed in the sheer volume of email people receive daily. Similarly, phone calls may also be more appropriate when the tone of how news is delivered matters, since email rarely conveys sentiment.

Speed at which “bad” news is delivered. Novice PMs often need to improve their ability to deliver bad news. While sending an email that the shipment will be late and leaving for the day may be the best way to avoid an angry customer, the more appropriate way is to call the customer as soon as the issue is noticed and offer the customer options that mitigate the impact of the late delivery. That demonstrates proactive concern for the problem and converts the situation from one in which the customer has no control to one where the customer is able to choose the resolution that works best for their needs.

Communications organization and retention. PMs face two critical challenges constantly: information overload and the need to document every action they take with customers. The way communications are organized can help both challenges immensely. Some companies use collaborative computing “pull” systems that organize communications and critical information by customer folder. The program team can access project data, upcoming meeting agendas, schedules and other critical information via the folder rather than depending on emails. This allows team members to have the information they need with minimal searching and keep meetings focused on issue resolution rather than information gathering. It also ensures there is a centralized repository of critical information instead of emails scattered across team computers. That said, there should also be standards for how emails are filed and how long they are retained, particularly if there are staff changes. When customers and their contract manufacturers have a disagreement on liability, a PM’s email file is often the first line of defense.
Situational analysis and critical thinking skills. Another area newer PMs often have room for improvement is analyzing evolving situations and determining gaps in the information they have been given. If a customer says they are expecting 30% upside in orders next quarter, does that mean a 30% increase in all product types or just one or two high runners? Neither material nor capacity availability questions can be addressed without a precise answer to that question. Making sure PMs are well-versed on the downstream impact of program changes can help ensure the right set of questions gets asked immediately.

Appropriate ways to improve performance. While much of this column has been focused on issues that involve teaching moments for younger PMs, there is also value in looking at the issues older workers can create. In my first job I entered a workplace with virtually no communication filters. If you made a mistake, corrections were loud and done in public. The assumption of many old school managers was that if it embarrassed you, you wouldn’t do it twice. There was a common culture of self-sacrifice and prioritizing company needs over personal schedule. Folks who died on the job (and there were several stress-related deaths at that first company) were heroes. I still can’t walk past baggage claim in McCarran Airport in Las Vegas without thinking of the marketing guy who had a heart attack on the carousel there on his way to a defense show. That world doesn’t exist today. Newer workers perceive public criticism of behavior as bullying and see the job as something that pays for their personal life, not the other way around. Those attitudes aren’t going to change with time. In many ways, that is an improvement over workplace cultures that demanded excessive self-sacrifice. Workers with work-life balance are able to make better decisions and often are less likely to job hop. The trick is making sure those workers have enough guidance to perform their jobs in ways that give a consistent “face” to the company. A proactive approach that provides the knowledge and tools before the mistakes get made is always more effective than criticism after the fact. When corrections must be made, the counseling session should be done in private and phrased in ways designed to coach good behavior rather than chastise bad behavior. Generational conflict often goes away when both sides take the time to discuss expectations and their rationale for the way they behave. Once those bridges get built, consistency follows.

Susan Mucha is president of Powell-Mucha Consulting Inc. (, a consulting firm providing strategic planning, training and market positioning support to EMS companies and author of Find It. Book It. Grow It. A Robust Process for Account Acquisition in Electronics Manufacturing Services;

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