In yesterday's world, the key to wealth may have been the control of land, materials, plants, or tools. In that world, the employee needed the company far more than the company needed the employee. In the apprentice model of leadership, the manager was a person who had mastered technical expertise and then passed on this expertise to followers who didn't know as much as he did.
In today's world, the key to wealth is often the employees' knowledge. In this world, the company may need knowledge workers far more than knowledge workers need the company. They know far more about what they are doing than their bosses do.
Smart companies are catching on. They're beginning to realize that their relationship with top talent resembles a strategic alliance more than a traditional employment contract. I have asked thousands of leaders this question: "Can the top performer on your team leave the company and get another job with a pay raise in three months?" Almost everyone says yes.
Using the Volunteer Model
If your top performer can leave the company and get a pay raise, yet has chosen to remain with your team, he is better than a volunteer. While a volunteer works for nothing, your top performer is actually taking a pay cut—every day he or she shows up for work.
One of the most unmotivating comments a leader can make when a team member does a great job is, "Oh well, that's what he gets paid for." If the only reason your employee is working for you is to get paid, why in the world would he want to work for you? Peter Drucker loved to study the leadership of volunteer organizations. One reason for his interest in nonprofits was his realization that because the knowledge worker can easily leave the company for a better situation, the volunteer model was going to become the preferred mode of leadership in many for-profit organizations.
With these thoughts in mind, here are some of my suggestions for managing knowledge workers:
• Rank-order each of your direct reports in terms of his contribution to your customers and your company.
• Ask yourself, "How many of these people could leave our company and get another job—with a pay raise—in three months?"
• Make sure you express your sincere appreciation for the contribution these great people are making to your company.
• Make peace with the fact that you need them more than they need you.
• Ask each of them, "What can your manager do to create an environment where this is a great place for you to work?"
• Don't focus on what you cannot change. Focus on what you can change. Let's say you can't give them a raise. Accentuate the things you can give them: recognition, educational opportunities, the chance to work with a wider range of people, both within the company and outside of it.
• Listen to their ideas, and do whatever you can to keep them coming to work with you.
• Treat them as a great human services leader would treat valued volunteers.
On a recent trip to Google (GOOG), I was amazed to see the efforts the company was making to create a fantastic environment for knowledge workers. It was clear the company was working for the employees as much as the employees were working for the company. It was also clear their engineers were at least as respected as their managers.
The Rewards of Corporate Culture
I was especially impressed with the nonmonetary benefits that were being given, such as their well-known employee transportation program, the delicious free food, and the fact that people are trusted to make their own schedules. Managers don't spend their time checking up on employees. The assumption is they are professional who can check up on themselves.
Many of the employees I met were making far less money than they could be making at other companies. Their respect for the corporate culture—and their joy in doing their work—seemed as important to them as their hope for riches from stock options. The lesson: Don't treat your employees like servants. Treat them like valued volunteers.
If you are a knowledge worker, do you feel you are being treated with the respect a valued volunteer should be given? If you are a manager, how would you rate your company on treating knowledge workers as valued volunteers?