Lead, Don’t Manage, Knowledge Workers

Guest post from James Hlavacek:

To improve innovation and growth, knowledge workers must be led, not managed. Too many policies born of bureaucracy are an enemy to creativity, so the more unnecessary distractions a company can remove from its employees, the freer they will be to contribute more creative ways. Management must reduce the administrative and on the job hassles for its employees by:

• Hiring people who are curious and knowledgeable about the job, the industry, the company;

• Limiting the number and length of meetings;

• Encouraging employees to network internally and collaboratively to continually seek the best and most efficient practices and solutions to problems; and

• Rewarding experimentation and avoiding penalties for mistakes made in

the pursuit of better solutions to customer needs.

Knowledge workers are self-directed, not other-directed, which means that they must be provided considerable autonomy. Out of respect for the knowledge they’ve gained over years, even front-line plant workers need freedom to “do their thing” as professionally as possible on their own. If they need help or clarification, they will ask for it.

People at all levels of a company, both degreed engineers and factory-floor craftspeople, are needed to design user-friendly new products and assemble prototypes that users can experiment with in the field. Today’s knowledge workers gain valuable information from every project and customer. They take their knowledge home with them every night and with them from company to company, including to competitors, if they feel mistreated. True knowledge workers are focused first on their professions and secondly to their current employer. Empowered knowledge workers make the best decisions for both their own development and for the good of the organization as a whole—because they realize that both will benefit from organizational health.

Although profits are the lifeblood of an organization, the financials come last. High costs and poor financial performance are lagging indicators, not leading ones. Financial viability is not a function of balance sheets and income statements, but the result of a focus on employee empowerment and engagement. Both drive higher customer satisfaction, which, in turn, leads to new customers and retention of previous ones. To quote Steve Jobs: Today’s leaders must think differently and shift their focus on their employees, not their financials. Be accountable first to your employees, not just to accountants. In short, by first doing your best to support and empower your employees, you’ll drive your organization to achieve its mission and purpose and it will achieve its financial goals as a secondary effect.

Walk around your plant and ask employees what things are causing bottlenecks, frustrations and disconnects. Request suggestions for how to improve processes, what customers are saying, and where communication breakdowns occur. Conduct annual employee engagement surveys, asking a wide range of questions, but be sure to follow up with actions that demonstrate you are listening and willing to improve anything in the culture that stands in the way of knowledge workers.


James Hlavacek, Ph.D., has over 40 years of global experience as a businessman, strategy consultant, and management educator. He has written five books including his latest Fat Cats Don’t Hunt. He has been a board member of both Fortune 100 companies and successful venture capital startups. http://www.corpdevinst.com/fatcatsdonthunt.html.

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