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Jamie Lawrence

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Leadership for the Knowledge Worker Age

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This article was written by Kevin Vaughan-Smith, managing director of leadership consultancy FranklinCovey UK & Ireland.

The rise of the knowledge worker

Mention the industrial age and many will think of the bustling factories and shipyards of the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries – more Brunel than Branson.

Whilst the UK still remains an important manufacturing centre, it’s a far cry from its grimy, smoky predecessor which led the world into the modern era.

We’re now in the age of the knowledge worker where people, rather than raw materials, have become the main sources of competitive and economic value.

Knowledge workers are highly educated and motivated by the prospect of being engaged and making a difference, rather than by financial reward.

The very best will hire their employers, rather than the other way around and they are looking for leaders who can unleash their talent and help them realise their potential.

However, faced with this new breed of employee, today’s leaders are struggling to rise to the challenge.

Even though many recognise the value in maximising people’s full creative potential, very few actually make it happen because their practices and organisational systems remain trapped in the autocratic, bureaucratic industrial age.

Breaking out into the 21st century

Breaking free of their industrial age shackles requires leaders to think very differently about their people.

In our experience, we’ve found the ‘Whole-Person Paradigm’ to be a simple, but highly effective concept. Representing individuals as being made up of body, heart, mind and spirit, it ensures that leaders see them as ‘whole people’ and manage and lead accordingly.

The paradigm enables leaders to recognise that often, the most valuable contributions are made by people who could easily choose to move elsewhere. As a result, leaders are guided to spend more time and effort creating an environment where people want to stay and are enabled to give their best.

The four imperatives of great leaders

At FranklinCovey we’ve identified four key areas, or imperatives, that leaders must focus on to meet the challenges of the knowledge worker age. These are:

  • Inspire trust
  • Clarify purpose
  • Align systems
  • Unleash talent

All four are sequential, building upon each other, but they are also simultaneous, meaning leaders must constantly pay attention to all four in order to achieve and sustain outstanding performance.

Inspire Trust

Put simply, this imperative is about ensuring leaders build credibility so people will trust them and give maximum effort.

When trust is high, speed goes up and costs go down. This is because bureaucratic, protective behaviours tend to be swept aside, meaning things get done quicker. Communication is also easier and good ideas can flow freely from those who would previously have held them back.

Trust has little or no influence on the industrial age leader, who sees his or her position of formal authority as the way to get results.

A great leader for the knowledge worker age accomplishes things through personal influence and credibility. The fastest way to raise credibility is through results and trust is built by the manner in which these results are achieved.

If necessary, start small, with one person. Make a promise and keep it. Set a goal and achieve it. Demonstrate a willingness to follow through with commitments and prepare to be surprised how fast trust increases.

Clarify purpose

The second imperative requires leaders to define a clear and compelling purpose that knowledge workers will want to achieve.

A good team purpose needs to cover the work required and its link to the wider mission and strategy. If every employee can repeat it accurately and with a full understanding of what it means, it is clear. It becomes compelling when people believe that it is worth achieving.

A compelling purpose does not rely on spin and hype. It is compelling because of the rigorous personal analysis leaders put into it and the involvement of others in shaping or understanding it – do take note of the old adage: “No involvement, no commitment.”

Align systems

Mediocre leaders believe everything depends on them and they seem to enjoy the feeling that it’s down to them to save the day.

This imperative is about creating robust, enduring systems that successfully support the purpose and goals of an organisation, enabling people to do their best work and operate independently.

There are four key systems that need to be established and aligned. The first covers execution and how you will achieve key goals. The second focuses on talent and ensuring the right people are in the right positions and that their capability is enhanced over time.

Thirdly, great leaders need to establish processes for carrying out core work and developing these over time, whilst last, but not least, is the requirement to ensure systems take account of customer feedback.

Unleash talent

The fourth imperative ensures that leaders focus on developing a winning culture where people’s talents are matched against clear performance expectations in a way that encourages responsibility and growth.

Knowledge workers respond to those who lead by example and any leader should recognise that they set an example and create culture every time they speak.

The best leaders establish and reinforce culture, not just through presentations and motivational speeches, but through individual conversations in which they help individuals understand their potential, clarify expectations or provide support to enable people to succeed.

Start with the small things

The change from the industrial to the knowledge worker age took decades, but by applying the principles above, leaders can expect a much faster transition in both their own style and that of their organisation.

They can start by focussing on the small things – by consistently doing these right, they’ll soon recognise that large things can be accomplished. They’ll also quickly discover that better results provide their own source of motivation and momentum to speed into the knowledge worker age.

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

Read more from Jamie Lawrence
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