Managing Multiple Generations Is a Balancing Act

By Larry Bonfante  |  Posted 07-09-2015 Print Email

At the end of the day, people may seem different on the outside but are often driven by many of the same things on the inside.

For as long as people have been on this Earth there have been generational gaps where the older generation simply “doesn’t get” the younger generation. My parents grew up listening to Lawrence Welk (God help them…and me!). I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin. Once I started playing the guitar in my first band, my parents were convinced that I was listening to “devil music” and that I would clearly grow up to be a drug addict. Every generation has their own ideals and mores, and none of them are right or wrong…they just are.

People often ask me how I have led organizations that span Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y and Millennials. To me, the key is a balancing act in respecting people’s individuality while focusing on what they have in common.

I remember feeling misunderstood when the adults in my life looked at the way my generation viewed things as bad or wrong. We were all a bunch of “hippies” who were growing our hair too long and were fighting the status quo. Being raised Italian Catholic, I was made to feel guilty about every effort to express my individuality. Today, I listen to the music of my daughters’ generation and feel the way my parents felt…I don’t get it! But I do get the fact that whether I understand the music they listen to, the way they dress, or how many tattoos they get, this is not about making value judgments but more about allowing people to express themselves as individuals while feeling part of a larger team.

In managing people from different generations it’s key to do two things. The first is to allow them to be who they are and not try to squeeze them into a box of conformity that they neither fit into nor want to be imprisoned in. Allowing people to express themselves as individuals and not only “accepting” it but embracing their diversity makes them feel valued and respected. This is not an easy thing to do. I am very set in my ways and think that my way is often the best way. Giving people the latitude to handle things their way and empowering them to get outcomes in ways that tap into their unique creativity and talents is critical. Otherwise you are trying to create a bunch of clones, and clones don’t innovate.

The other side of this equation is focusing more on how people are similar than on their differences. All people want to feel valued, appreciated and respected. All people want to feel that their contributions are recognized. People want to feel accepted as part of something bigger than themselves. They want to know that you want them to be part of the team and that their contributions to the team matter. No one wants to work somewhere that they feel they toil in obscurity, never getting any recognition or reward. I learned this lesson from managing a global organization during my time at Pfizer. While the people I led in Asia, Europe and North America had different customs, cultures and histories, at the end of the day they were all people. I learned to respect and support their individuality while embracing them as a part of our larger family. At the end of the day, people may seem different on the outside but are often driven by many of the same things on the inside. The key is finding unique ways to tap into universal needs.

Larry Bonfante is a practicing CIO and founder of CIO Bench Coach, LLC, an executive coaching practice for IT executives. He is also the author of Lessons in IT Transformation, published by John Wiley & Sons. He can be reached at


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