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  • John Chambers, PhD

Stewards or Serfs?

Bjorn is the CEO of a 5,000 employee enterprise.

After board and executive competitive analyses, Bjorn wanted the company to focus extensively, if not singularly and passionately, on the new CRM app, a dynamic AI based utility that marks a transformative shift in the industry.

As the operation rolls along, various projects march ahead. The actions of all departments are the orchestra that will optimally drive the CRM app to fruition.

At various crossroads, managers, professionals across the enterprise and leaders will be challenged as to priorities. And in those moments the culture is manifestly exposed when a leader is unable to champion the value of that critical CRM strategy without deferring to the “boss” directive.

“Bjorn says we need to finish the use case by end of month!”

Is this motivating?

Is this a call to teamwork?

Is that a means to sell the value of the strategy?

If departmental or divisional conversations depend on playing the “C” card, then either the leader struggles to present the strategic value of a plan, or there is a more unsettling implication: the leader believes the team is unable to embrace their role nor acknowledge their accountability without a master/slave modality. The team members are viewed as, and see themselves as, order takers -- worse, as serfs.

The knowledge economy demands knowledge firms. And the leading firms of tomorrow in turn demand knowledge professionals. As automation streamlines and accelerates tasks, and as more tasks can be collated and structured into the instructions for machine execution, the value of our workforce, every one of us, depends on the ability to comprehend, innovate, and add that value to which only a cognizant human being can provide. We are professionals and employees because we are more creative and intelligent than the machine; the employee delivers customer value because of the employee’s unique and creative neurons that mark our humanity and our extraordinary advantage over robots. Thus, if our employees are unique and valuable knowledge champions, are we treating them like that, or are we treating them like nothing but machines themselves, who react via hierarchical directive?

If the knowledge employee is the professional of the future, the lifeblood of a creative enterprise, isn’t that professional able to comprehend the vision and the mighty rationales for the corporate strategy or the corporate mandate? How lazy is our behavior if we can’t communicate the corporate initiative without treating employees like a device, and instead we mandate action because the chief said so. If a leader leans on the boss paradigm, the leader displays little respect for the team or herself.

The CRM dream that Bjorn has should be the same dream that all contributors have Everyone supports the strategy because it shall help our company and shall help our customers. Delivering products and services that advance society is our rationale; the rational to meet deadlines or prioritize efforts should not be advanced because we were ordered to do it. When we recognize our accountabilities because they help advance a strategy or noble objective then “making a buck” is stimulating and even more exciting, elevating enthusiasm throughout the culture. Leaders propagate accomplishments because of the worthiness of those objectives, not because a higher-up demands it.

As supervisor of employees, departments, divisions, companies, we must articulate go-forward plans as means to competitive ends. Are we so desperate in our leadership accountability that our emphasis relies on “The boss told us to do it”?

Communications surrounding all strategic or tactical objectives must highlight the corporate value; they must not hide behind a hierarchy of ranks. This thinking should permeate all of our plans and goals, and this includes the governance view. If we can only see regulatory or governance expectations as reactions to statutes or governmental bodies, then we shall not incorporate the best practice needs that were the motivator for these regulatory mandates. We are fiduciary stewards of the enterprise, who institute checks and balances not because a senator, regulator, bureaucrat told us to do it, but because our customers and fellow employees put their trust in us. Our rules and actions are about securing trust, not about avoiding jail time. “Because it’s a corporate law” is the lazy approach to explaining firm behaviors and company frameworks. And it is no better than explaining our priories as simple reactions to CEO Bjorn’s expectation. If we are waiting for the lawyers to explain why we behave in certain fashions, if we are prioritizing our capabilities because a COO said, “Get moving on this,” if we are unable to motivate our teams without leaning on the next boss in the hierarchy, we undermine any philosophy of knowledge professionals.

Our responsibility is to adopt a thoughtful and deliberate posture surrounding a corporate goal, and to support this goal by recognizing our value in advancing the ecosystem and customer base. Our responsibility is to recognize and champion goals, not act because of supervisory instructions.

If we cannot work with other executives, tying departmental tasks and behaviors to our strategic values, ideals, and the betterment of our customers, we don’t deserve to be called knowledge professionals; we would instead be serfs, beholden to someone higher than we to give us our marching orders.

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