Being an effective leader of knowledge workers means reconceptualizing your role and being a ‘facilitator,’ not a ‘boss.’ 

Thanks to the ever-more-specialized nature of knowledge work in today’s global business environment, many people know more about what they do than their boss does. The increasing prevalence of this type of expert employees presents a number of challenges to modern leaders that previous generations never had to address. 

Let’s take a closer look at this, starting with one of my favourite Peter Drucker quotes. Drucker provided a prescient perspective on the authoritative leader, when he said: “While the leader of the past knew how to tell, the leader of the future will know how to ask.”

Leaders in the age of the knowledge worker need to know how to ask because they know far less about the jobs their workers are doing than their workers do! I’ve never seen anyone live these words to the degree that my friend and the former chief executive of Ford, Alan Mulally, did. And it was of great benefit of those around him. In fact, what Mulally did was so monumental that he was ranked as the third-greatest leader in the world by Fortune magazine. Prior to that he was recognized as the best chief executive in the US by CEO magazine.

Here is a little more history about Mulally. After an incredibly successful career at Boeing (where he rose to the role of chief executive of Boeing Commercial Aircraft), Mulally became the chief executive of Ford and helped the company achieve one of the most positive turnarounds in the history of corporate America. The amazing story of Ford is well-documented in the book American Icon. When he left Ford, Alan had a 97% approval rating from his employees.

How did he do it?

Let’s start with a little history about me. For over 40 years I have been a student of leadership. I have a PhD from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. I am the author of 35 books. I served on the advisory board of the Peter Drucker Foundation for ten years. I have had the honour of coaching over 150 of the most important organizational leaders in the world. Yet in my long career, I have never observed an approach to leadership that matches Mulally’s. His style is as unlike authoritative leadership as any style I have ever seen. It is ‘leader as facilitator’ rather than ‘leader as authority’ or ‘leader as boss’.

It’s similar to my behavioural coaching process. The philosophy behind stakeholder-centred coaching is simple: leaders can learn a lot more from their key stakeholders – who interact with them every day – than they can learn from any coach. My average client has 18 key stakeholders – who am I to assume that I know more than these 18 other executives? In my coaching I am a facilitator. I create a process where my clients reach out to their stakeholders, listen and learn. I don’t get paid for spending time with my clients or for proving how smart I am. I do get paid when they achieve positive, lasting change in leadership behaviour – as judged by their key stakeholders.

Mulally’s process of leader-as-facilitator is like putting my coaching process on steroids! The philosophy behind his leadership style is simple: why should I – even though I am the chief executive – assume that I know more than the thousands of leaders and professionals at
the company?

Mulally has each of his direct reports publicly discuss each of their five key priorities in the weekly Business Plan Review meeting. Rather than immediately leaping in to help the direct report who has a problem, he facilitates learning from everyone on the team. Rather than saying, “Here is how I can help you,” Mulally asks, “Who are the best people at the company who can help?”

As a leader-facilitator, Mulally is perfectly comfortable facilitating a meeting where great guidance is provided – even if none of the great guidance comes from him. He is not delusional enough to believe that he has all of the answers. He is facilitating a process of finding the answers.

To say the leader-as-facilitator process is different from the corporate norm would be an understatement. The main challenge is how do you help your team members achieve their goals when you – as a leader – are not an expert on the topic? Here are six quick tips for effectively managing knowledge workers.

 1. Demonstrate passion

In days past, working 40 hours per week and taking four or five weeks of vacation meant that people often focused less on loving what they do. Today, people work 60-80 hours a week and it’s crucial that they love their work to avoid burnout. Those who lead by example and demonstrate passion for what they do make it much easier for their followers to do the same.

 2. Strengthen abilities

With less job security and more global competition, it’s critical that people update and refine their skills continuously. Leaders need to look beyond skills needed today and help their workers learn skills they will need tomorrow.

 3. Appreciate time

People have less time today, which means the value of that time has increased. Leaders who waste their workers’ time are not looked upon favourably. Leaders will be far more successful if they protect people from things that neither encourage their passions nor enhance their abilities.

 4. Build networks

Today, job security comes from having ability, passion, and a great network. Leaders who enable people to form strong networks both inside and outside the company will gain a huge competitive advantage, along with the loyalty of their workers. These professional networks allow people to expand their knowledge and bring it back to the organization.

 5. Support growth

The best knowledge workers are working for more than money. They want to make a contribution and to grow in their fields. Leaders who ask their people, “What can our company do to help you grow and achieve your goals?” will find it comes back tenfold.

 6. Expand happiness and meaning

No one wants to work at a meaningless job that makes them unhappy. Leaders must show their workers how the organization can help them make a contribution to the larger world and feel rewarded for doing something about which they are passionate.

Managing knowledge workers is a challenging and rewarding job. Leaders who do so must look beyond the work, and think about the person who does the work if they are to be successful. By appreciating and encouraging the dedication, time and experience of their workers, leaders help shape not only the futures of the professionals they lead, but also the future of their organizations.

Marshall Goldsmith is an executive leadership coach, author and speaker.

An adapted version of this article appeared on the Dialogue Review website