Leading Knowledge Workers in the 21st Century

Paereto’s Principle keeps on having 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 being faster than it has ever been before. We can’t use history to figure out where we’re going, 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 world go round. Even workers who are still (new) industrial workers are now knowledge based ie. the latest model of car has more built-in computing power than some of the first satellites.

In many cases, people in middle or upper management today remember a management style that existed when they first entered the job market. 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. The 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 company commitment, morale and productivity.

While talking about leading the Dejobbed Organization, author William Bridges recalls that one CEO compared his organization to a volleyball team saying, “It taked three hits to get the ball over the net and it doesn’t matter who hits it.” Knowledge workers have a sense of their contribution and value to their organizations. They now have different needs from leadership than those provided by leaders of yesterday.

To lead knowledge workers into the 21st century leaders must:

  • Re-examine 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 outcome—people have different jobs but not inferior and superior ones (the volleyball team concept)—sincere 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)
  • 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
  • Master lateral thinking skills
  • Work on a “vision” level of where the team/organization is going
  • Learn and demonstrate the power of partnering (both within the organization— with other branches— and also with different external companies—even community endeavours.)
  • Encourage and demonstrate ethical, consistent, and congruent behaviour
  • Reduce levels of job stress and tension
  • Encourage pride in the organization
  • Develop and use performance management systems
  • Foster teamspirit and use team language rather than “lone ranger”, or separate, language ie. “we” vs. “I”, “us” vs. “you”
  • Encourage the demonstration of personal leadership from all team members

Being a leader to knowledge workers is more challenging than leading in the days of “Ward Cleaver”. 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.

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