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Knowledge workers know more than "the boss"?

by Dr Marshall Goldsmith

My great friend Michael Bungay Stanier is a member of our 100 Coaches and was recently ranked by Thinkers50 as one of the top 8 coaches in the world. Michael is the senior partner of Box of Crayons, a company best known for its coaching programs that help organizations do less Good Work and more Great Work.

He has written two books The Coaching Habit and Do More Great Work, which have sold close to 600,000 copies. In this week’s interview, Michael and I talk about knowledge workers and how best to lead them.

Michael: My book The Coaching Habit is an acclamation of the importance of questions. In it I express the importance of staying curious a little bit longer and rushing to action and advice giving a little more slowly. I’m pretty sure my approach, focusing on asking questions, is aligned with how you think about coaching and what you think is important in the world. Can you tell me more about that?

Marshall: Yes, Peter Drucker taught me that today we manage knowledge workers. A knowledge worker is someone who knows more about what they’re doing than their boss does. In the history of leadership, the boss was superior to the people being led. They were bigger, stronger, and smarter.

That was yesterday. Today, most of us manage people called knowledge workers. If I’m a CEO and I know more about marketing than the marketing person or finance than the finance person, I don’t have a leadership problem., I have a selection problem. You want your people to know more than you do about what they do. And, when people know more than you about what they do, you can’t tell them what to do and how to do it, they already know. So, you have to ask. You have to listen. You have to learn.

One of the great leaders that we both know is Alan Mulally. Alan, a fantastic leader and the former CEO of Ford, tells a story. He was in a meeting and he encouraged his people to rate their priorities and projects on a red, yellow, green scale. Green, being on plan, red not on plan and don’t know how to get there, and yellow, not quite on plan but there is a strategy to get there.

At the first meeting, when the company was losing $17 billion, everyone on the team rated their priorities green! The company was losing $17 billion and everyone was on plan? The team came back each week and all was green until finally, someone said, “Red”. Alan said, “Great! You don’t know where you are or how to get there. I don’t either.”

Michael: What a moment, because this is with all the senior leaders of Ford and they’re kind of testing him because it’s early on in his days there. And if there’s ever a moment you would think a CEO is going to say, “Let me show you how I can save the moment because we are losing millions and billions of dollars. There’s pressure on me from the board to turn this around.” But instead of that he does something different. What does he do?

Marshall: He says, “I know less than you. Why don’t we find people who can help and ask them for the answers?” Well, they found out the answers and they were three or four levels below them in the company. So, this is a great example of your philosophy of asking rather than giving advice and falling into that advice trap you talk about. Getting leaders to have that discipline to stop and breathe, to ask themselves before they advise or even make suggestions (as Alan did) “Am I the world’s expert on this topic? If I’m not, why am I talking to you like I am?”

Life is good. Marshall.

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