Managing the 21st Century Worker

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., copyright 2007

Bribing employees to be content and to remain your employees by giving them bonuses, stock options and other monetary incentives is the dominant retention strategy used by corporate America. Unfortunately, that works best in emerging fast growth businesses and during a rising stock market or boom as Microsoft was able to do for years and Google is enjoying right now. With unemployment in the Seattle area (my neck of the woods) at an all time low of 4.4%, employers have to be smarter to attract and retain top talent in this competitive market place. And, you can't afford to alienate top talent.

Take Microsoft as an example. Once Microsoft's stock flattened out, I can't tell you how many of their mid-level executives told me, "MS is stuck at 27 and I'm stuck too." MS began to loose long-term valuable employees who couldn't justify or rationalize the relentless grind any longer. One of the sayings of MS employees used to be, "When I hit the 10 year mark, I'm out of here." Meaning: my stock will be fully vested by then and I can retire. However, when the stock isn't growing, 10 years begins to look like forever. Microsoft has begun to adjust and make changes to accommodate their 21st Century Workers. For example, they recently abandoned the stacked rating performance management system that provided incentives for cutthroat competition between employees, not collaboration and team building. And, they now have earned "Best Places to Work" awards from Fortune: # 50 in 2007. Google is # 1.

What if you're not a highflying star like Google or have the cache of a Microsoft?

What's the secret sauce needed to both retain and manage today's "knowledge workers?"

By "knowledge workers" I mean the folks who bring smarts, not brawn to the workplace. And it's clear that the 21st Century American company is primarily a "knowledge" company. Manufacturing continues to move oversees to countries with lower paid, less skilled workers.

The primary motivators - the secret sauce - for knowledge workers are to be challenged intellectually and to develop professionally. They know that they do not have guaranteed lifetime employment. They are truly free agents and free agents move to and stay where they feel wanted and can grow. They know that they need to look out for themselves because no one else will and they know that they need to grow professionally to be attractive to the next employer in their upwardly mobile serial career.

Over the past few years I've worked with a variety of companies and professional services firms and have interviewed dozens of their non-partner/non-executive level employees - the knowledge workers. The two most common complaints I've heard were: 1) "My boss doesn't take the time to help me develop. I'm just given work and told to produce." 2) "My boss is a jerk or an idiot." Free agents want to feel valued, not used. Forget the old days where having a job was good enough to retain employees. Employers can no longer rest easy with the veiled threat of, "Do it or you're out of here." That works with employees who are less skilled and lack confidence but not with the talented.

There are several non-expensive things you can do to effectively manage and retain your valuable free agents.

Begin by asking them:

  • Where do you want to be in 2 - 5 years and how can I support you achieving those goals?
  • What do you want to achieve?
  • What do you want to learn?
  • What excites you about your work?
  • How will you know that working here has benefited you?
  • One year from now, how will we know that you have been successful in this job?

The above is a recipe for putting them in charge of their success by having them help define it. That's the essence of respect and trust. You're saying to them: "I want you to be successful in this job. I trust that you are competent and are motivated to succeed and to help us be successful. And, if there is an alignment between your goals and ours, both of us will be more likely to achieve success."

Then, follow up with action. Dedicate part of your time and/or allocate resources to provide them with mentoring/coaching. You need to move out of the role of cop or mother checking up on them (Did you do your job?) to that of coach and partner.

As you work with them, ask:

  • What challenges are you facing as you are working on your/our business objectives and goals?
  • What ideas do you have about accomplishing your/our goals more effectively?
  • What assistance can I give you (not doing it for them but advice or support)?
  • What organizational hurdles or roadblocks can I help you navigate, surmount or if possible, remove?
  • What skills do you need to acquire to do your job better and to prepare you for your next challenge?

Ben Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and author of the book, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life, published by Harvard Business School Press, talked about the concept of "Giving An A" to his students at the beginning of his course at the New England Conservatory. He would tell his students that everyone in his class would get an A for the course with one provision. "Sometime during the next two weeks, you must write me a letter dated next May, which begins with the words, 'Dear Mr. Zander, I got an A because . . .,' and in this letter you are to tell, in as much detail as you can, the story of what will have happened to you by next May that is in line with this extraordinary grade."

The results were that all of his students reached beyond what they normally thought they could achieve. They reached high and worked hard because they could visualize the end result and they were put into the driver's seat to achieve it. Zander believed that all of them were competent and could succeed.

Now, imagine telling your employees at the beginning of each performance rating cycle, "You will get a 5 rating (it's usually a 1 to 5 scale that companies use) at our next review with one provision. . . . I want you to write up your performance review in advance stating what will have happened to you by our next performance review that is in line with this extraordinary rating." Notice that implicit in this question is that they will be productive even though you aren't asking them what they will achieve/produce. You're asking them how they will have grown/changed/developed if they achieve a 5 rating.

Wouldn't it be great if all of your employees achieved a 5 rating?