Nina Spencer

March Forth in Leading Today’s Knowledge Workers

Paereto's Principle keeps on having its applications. At the turn of 20th century it is said that 80% of all jobs were in manufacturing and only 20% were in services. Today that old 80/20 rule still applies&but in reverse!

We've all read the quotes and heard the statistics about change occurring faster and faster. We can't use history to figure out where we're going next, or to examine the patterns, because this time we're going where "no one has gone before".

Jobs may be redefined or eliminated but there is still work that needs to be done and people who need to do it. However, the kind of work, and the kind of services, and the kind of worker providing them have all changed. Today there are more "knowledge workers" than any other kind of worker in the workplace. A "knowledge worker" is a worker who works within the industry of brains, technology and services. This worker provides services and contributions which, in most cases, do not have a tangible outcome. Yet it's their professional contribution which is making today's business world go around. Even workers who are still (new) industrial workers are now knowledge based ie. the latest model of car has more builtin computing power than some of the first satellites.

In many cases, people who are now in middle or upper management will remember the antiquated management style that existed when they first entered the workforce. That style has been coined by author and management consultant, Judith Bardwick, (Danger in the Comfort Zone and The Plateauing Trap) as "Peacetime Management". Barwick suggests that peacetime management style was fine when business was predictable. In those days managers didn't have to create an emotional following from staff. Their positional power was good enough.

Since the early 1980's we've left the "peacetime" work experience and it probably won't come back in our life time! Today we need what Barwick calls "Wartime Leadership". Today's leaders may still be emulating the example set by those they learned from and admired long ago. That management style is a disaster with knowledge workers and it's a sure way to fail in inspiring organizational commitment, morale and productivity.

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While talking about leading the dejobbed organization, author William Bridges recalls that one CEO compared his organization to a volleyball team saying, "It takes three hits to get the ball over the net and it doesn't matter who hits it." Knowledge workers have a clear sense of their contribution and the value they bring to their organizations. They now have different needs from leadership than that provided by leaders of yesterday.

If you are in a position of official leadership, review the following list of suggestions for effectively leading the knowledge workers of this (still new) 21st century. Go through this list with a red pen and yellow highlighter, checking off the ideas which you already champion, in red pen, and highlighting the other ideas which you would like to apply or accelerate, in yellow. Even if you are not in a position of official leadership within the workplacerather, an independent contributor in the workplace or a frontline employeecruise this list to see "where you are at" with these practices and suggestions on a personal/professional level (you can still demonstrate the attitude, qualities and many of the actions of "leadership" without the formal and official titles and positions).

To lead knowledge workers in this (still new) 21st century business leaders must:

  • reexamine and be able to clearly articulate their own personal values and purpose
  • facilitate all team members in examining their own personal values and purpose
  • confirm that their own values and purpose (and that of other team members) is in alignment with the organization's vision, mission and values statements
  • think and demonstrate that all employees are necessary to achieve the desired outcomespeople have different jobs but not inferior and superior ones (the volleyball team concept)sincere and equal respect for the contribution of all workers involved in the project
  • integrate, resource and orchestrate the activities of various projects and provide leadership for these various projects as required
  • share leadership with those who, through their knowledge, should naturally assume the leadership of the team at certain points
  • guide, coach and mentor employees' ongoing professional and personal development (nurture an intensely learning oriented organization)
  • be a walking demonstration of their own continuous personal and professional development (develop personal power and inspiration rather than relying on the traditional positional power and fear based compliance of employees; realize that personal power is bestowed on the leader by inspired followers; the leader does not have personal power just because they think they do!)
  • have sincere belief and passion in the organization's vision, mission and values statements and use that languaging on a daily basis
  • be feedback junkies&from team members, peers, other branches within the organization and, ultimately from the external customers/clients; it will follow that the leader's ego must, at times, "go and stand in the corner", to be sincerely open to all feedback
  • master creative and lateral thinking skills (start with some Edward Dubono's books)
  • work on a "vision" level of where the team/organization is going
  • learn and demonstrate the power of partnering (both within the organizationwith other branchesand also with different external companieseven community endeavours, eg. Chapters and Starbucks is a classic partnering example that comes to mind)
  • encourage and demonstrate ethical, consistent, and congruent behaviour
  • reduce levels of employee job stress and tension through a variety of means, eg. professional development workshops, offsite meetings, EAP, etc.
  • encourage and facilitate pride in the organization
  • develop and use efficient and effective modern performance management systems (when was the last time your organization updated its performance management model?)
  • foster team spirit and use team language rather than "lone ranger", or separate, language ie. "we" vs. "I", "us" vs. "you"no singling out awardssingling awards say you have one winner and a bunch of losers on your teamI first heard business author and management consultant Tom Peters (two of his most popular books being, In Search of Excellence, and Thriving on Chaos) make this suggestion
  • encourage the demonstration of personal leadership from all team members, no matter how frontline or entry level their position is within the organizational structure
  • champion regular, annual or semiannual branch or divisional offsites ( a whole lot of hardtomeasure good comes out of these eventsjust ask the organizations who do do this&and do it right; put in much workplace/taskstyle content in the beginning, if you like or must, but be sure to "mix it up" and end it off with some lightheartedness and fun. Employees will remember, and be grateful for, a well produced and thoughtfully put together programeven the bellyaching, carping skeptics who grumble all the way to the event, will admit that they were glad they attended!)


Being a leader to today's knowledge workers is more challenging than leading in the days of "Ward Cleaver" (the boss and dad from the 1950's television show, "Leave it to Beaver). You can't ever get too good at it and the mark is always changing.

In a moment of wistful weariness, when you wish it was like the "good ole days", just remember the words of Ashleigh Brilliant, "strangely enough, this is the past that somebody in the future is longing to go back to"or will that be the case? Perhaps this generation of leaders will inspire us all, once and for all, to only look forward and embrace the future, rather than keep craning and twisting our necks as we look over our shoulders and whimper about the lost past, while singing Barbra Steisand's "The Way We (Never) Were". Remember&March is the only month of the whole year that tells you exactly what to do (on one particular day)&March forth!