Leading the Free Agent Workforce, Part II
In my last post, I talked about a new dimension to the workforce – the “free agency” mindset of knowledge workers – that’s forcing a shift in leadership approach for managers. Now let’s dig into how managers will adapt to this new dimension. You’ll be surprised - the “new” way of leading free agents is actually pretty old school.
In their recent book, The 2020 Workplace, Meister and Willyerd explain what our emerging workplace demands. To engage employees, they say, an organization will have “five principles resonating throughout its organizational practices” - collaboration, authenticity, personalization, innovation and social connection. Nope, no mention of job security increasing engagement. What free agents want is to connect with each other, work in teams on innovative projects, and learn and grow at an accelerated rate under authentic, transparent leaders.
Wait a second - isn’t that what everybody wants? Absolutely – the difference now is free agents expect it. Fortunately, some managers have led this way for years, because the core concepts/skills have been kicking around longer than many free agents have walked the planet, let alone the workplace. It didn’t start with Covey’s Principle-Centered Leadership, or Buckingham’s strengths-based management, or Lencioni’s “first team” concept. It goes all the way back to Peter Drucker, who said a manager's job is to prepare and free people to perform. Tailor-made for free agents, and that was 1954 - five years before the term “knowledge worker” existed.
Later, in the '70s, Hersey and Blanchard introduced us to Situational Leadership Theory, showing managers how to tailor their approach to the needs of the person or team in a specific context. Again, dead-on for free agent teams who want managers to adapt their approach to their developmental needs.
The list goes on – this is not new stuff, just not common practice (yet). So I’ve distilled down all I’ve seen, read, practiced and taught that resonates with free agents – new and old - to four key mandates for the Free Agent Leader. An oversimplification, for sure, but here are the essentials for managers of the free agent nation. What you’ll see is timeless fundamentals:
- Lead: Be clear on the vision, purpose, goals and priorities – in short, the outcomes you need, with a heavy dose of why you need them. And lead by example through your own authentic behaviors. Be open and don’t fake it.
- Listen: Give individuals and teams air time to clue you in on what’s happening and what they need. Assume you don’t know until you’ve asked and they’ve answered.
- Learn: Take time to understand what’s unique about each of your people, and what’s common across them. Develop individuals based on what’s unique to them, and lead collectively based on what resonates across the group.
- Let Go: Hardest of all. Let teams participate in decisions that affect them. Give them the room to collaborate and innovate by removing barriers. Challenge them to take on more of your job – that’s everything you’re doing today that doesn’t absolutely require your level of authority or influence. Allow yourself to get out of their way whenever you can.