Brandt On Leadership -- Employees Change The Rules

Dec. 21, 2004
Meet your new partners. They work for you.

A few months back I wrote about the New Customers (Nine New Customer Rules), a generation of industrial and home-based consumers whose expectations have been supercharged by advances in information technology, global logistics, and management theory. These customers play by a new set of rules and insist that you do, too. Reader response and further reflection have convinced me that it's not just customers who have different expectations. Employees, too, have fundamentally changed the rules by which they'll play -- and if you want to recruit and retain the best, you'll have to learn the new game, too. What do these 21st-century workers want? The New Employees want to be your partners, not your slaves. Workers these days want respect, and not just in the form of please and thank you, although that's a good way to start. The New Employees expect that if you want their best effort, you'll treat them more like business partners and less like the automatons of yester-year. Yet most of us still treat our workers not like valued partners, but more like, well, untrustworthy idiots:

  • We don't share sensitive information with them, for fear they won't understand it or that they'll disclose it to competitors.
  • We don't share decision-making, for fear they aren't smart enough or fully committed.
  • We don't share the rewards of our success because down deep we still believe that it was our smarts, and not their efforts, that made the money in the first place.
Is it any wonder that our employees don't act more like partners? If you want someone to act like a partner, you've got to treat him or her like a partner. It's hard work: Few people willingly give up information, authority, or cash, but a raft of research says that partnering with employees works, be it through self-directed work teams or profit sharing or one of a hundred different techniques. Period. How much more successful could you be if you fully engaged every single employee, every single day? And what are you waiting for? The New Employees want to be trained and prepared to give their best effort. More than ever, workers view their jobs not just as paychecks, but as opportunities to build careers -- but not in a traditional sense. Why? Because after hearing us say over and over that we can't guarantee a lifetime of employment, the smartest employees now evaluate jobs on more than compensation alone. The New Employees want to know what they'll learn from you, not just about your business and industry but in terms of skills and technologies that will transfer to another employer should the need arise. Many employers will say that they can't afford to train because of the expense and because better-trained, better-informed employees may decide to leave for better opportunities. That's true. And yet the real question is this: What if you don't train your most ignorant employees, and they decide to stay? The New Employees want leadership. This may seem counterintuitive, given that today's workers want more authority and autonomy. Yet the New Employees also want direction and commitment from their leaders. Empowerment doesn't mean abdication, and self-directed doesn't mean in any direction the wind blows. The strongest organizations provide a clear vision of:
  • The company's core mission.
  • The company's core customers.
  • The company's core values.
Time and again I see organizations failing not for lack of good ideas, but for lack of leadership to turn those ideas into realities. The New Employees are hungry for leaders who will treat them as partners, but who will make tough decisions when called upon. The New Employees want leaders who will create opportunities to learn and make mistakes, but who also will hold them and their peers accountable for their promises. Most of all, the New Employees want New Leaders who can coordinate partners across disciplines, departments, and company boundaries to create something greater than the leader or the employees themselves -- something they all can look back on with pride at the end of a day or a career and say, "I built that. That was mine." Are you ready to be a New Leader? John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is now editorial director of the Chief Executive Group, publisher of Chief Executive magazine.

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