I Came; I Adapted; I Led: Managing Multiple Generations as a Finance Director

August 9, 2016 – Charlie Francis


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Yes, I’m a baby boomer. In fact, I’m in the first wave of early baby boomers – born in 1949.

A Baby-Boomer in a Traditionalist Workforce

When I first entered the workplace, I was supervised by and worked with what sociologists label as ‘traditionalists.’  My colleagues were stereotypical: they believed work should not be fun. They followed rules, adhered to procedures.  Innovation and creativity were not encouraged, but frowned upon. “Keep your head down, complete the monotonous rhythms of the accounting cycle, show up again tomorrow… “

Fortunately, my boss Alan was different. He was mostly happy! Yes, he held us accountable for timeliness and accuracy. Yet he did so by being a bright spot in our day. He showed up to work with a positive attitude, left the personal and heavy stuff at home, and came to work ready to brighten his staff’s days.

One day he took a leap of faith and bought me the first Texas Instrument calculator that held a number in memory. The next month, I allocated indirect costs across 30+ funds in three hours, previously a three-day task. My reward? He told me to take the next 2 ½ days off! Soon, he encouraged me to show colleagues how to use the calculator so they could modernize their day-to-day accounting procedures. A couple of years later, operations were so streamlined that Alan had to let me go – productivity improvements from emerging technologies didn’t justify having such a large staff – I had the least seniority….

In retrospect, Alan was an inspirational mentor-manager. He primarily managed other traditionalists. He motivated them with respect. They had job security. But he was also a bi-generational mentor and integrator. He recognized I was motivated by being valued and needed. He knew money also motivated me; he double promoted me through my agency’s five-step pay system. He integrated me into the traditionalist workforce by capitalizing on my technological strengths and teaching me to respect my older team members’ values. The result – although I was the workgroup’s most productive member, I was also the low man on the totem pole. A baby-boomer stuck in a traditionalist culture, I accepted being laid off as the needed “kicking out of the nest” to become the finance manager and institutional leader that I was destined to be.

Baby-Boomer Management

Soon  I was leading my own finance department; and the workforce (city manager, department heads, staff) was predominantly fellow baby-boomers, making it easy to manage heterogeneously motivated staff. Our careers defined who we were; our work was important to us.

I managed my team as I would have wanted to be managed! I set clear and concise job expectations and let my staff know their ideas mattered. They expected to be valued and managed to their expectations. I showed them they were appreciated because they “paid their dues” under the hierarchical rules. I pre-assessed comfort level with technology before assigning new projects. I held staff accountable by following-up, checking-in, and asking how they were doing on a regular basis, but NEVER micro-managed.

Silly routines frustrated me. So, I looked for shortcuts, technological improvements, and efficiencies. That gave me, and my staff, enough time to work as a team to prepare a CAFR that met the GFOA criteria for the Certificate of Compliance for Financial Reporting award. We celebrated this victory as a group effort!

I was enjoying being a baby-boomer manager in a baby-boomer generation!

Then came Generation X

The workforce was gradually transitioning to new dynamic young leaders who wanted jobs in forward-thinking organizations that offered flexibility in scheduling, and where input was evaluated on merit, not age/seniority. For baby-boomers, work was primarily a career – a place where one worked then retired. Generation X’ers were motivated by freedom and removal of rules, and instead of money, they wanted time-off.  

This was hardly the profile of most local governments in the 1990’s, as they were populated mostly by baby-boomer citizens and baby-boomer workers. Once thrown out of the comfort-nest, it was necessary to grow my wing feathers and learn to fly. I reached back to Alan’s bi-generational management and mentoring lessons. I recognized the assets and liabilities of each generation; and used one generation’s strengths to offset the other’s liabilities through awareness, team meetings, and one-on-one mentoring.

The more casual work environment, while ensuring office coverage during essential hours, encouraged team creativity. We allowed flexibility and relinquished control as long as expectations and deadlines were met. Quality control was a group effort. The bi-generational workforce took responsibility for full process completion.  

It wasn’t always comfortable working across and integrating two generations, but the cities I managed thrived and not only earned GFOA awards; that gained nationwide recognition for cutting-edge financial management strategies and tactics.

Next week, you’ll see the management lessons I learned working with millennials!


Charlie Francis is a municipal finance expert. He has more than forty years of local government financial management experience in both the public and private sector, including twenty years of experience as a Chief Financial Officer. Most recently, he served as the Director of Administrative Services and Treasurer for the City of Sausalito where he earned the unofficial title of “OpenGov super user”.  He has also served as a finance manager for the Town of Colma, CA and as CFO and acting City Manager for the Cities of Indian Wells, CA and Tracy, CA.

Questions or comments? Email Charlie at cfrancis@opengov.com.

Category: Government Finance