Steve Jobs may have had an enormous ego as the head of Apple, but he understood his place in the information age when he famously quipped,

It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

Genius and profound. Your best move is to intentionally not be the smartest person in the room. And other iconic figures would agree. As Lee Iacocca once said, "I hire people brighter than me and get out of their way."

While smart people may be found up and down your organizational chart, there's a more specific term for the type of people Jobs and Iacocca were referencing: knowledge workers

The Age of the Knowledge Worker

Coined by management expert Peter Drucker in 1959, the term knowledge workers refers to people whose main capital is to think for a living. They work with their heads, not their hands, to plan, analyze, organize, test, program, distribute, search, market, or otherwise generally contribute to the transformation of information in the knowledge economy.

Drucker asserted quite prophetically before his death in 2005 that increasing the productivity of knowledge workers was the most important contribution managers needed to make in the 21st century.

That leads to the million-dollar question: How do you manage them? How do you manage highly paid, independent thinkers who like to control the process of their own work and don't like to be managed, and who own their organization's means of innovating, developing, and producing?

The same way as everyone else. You treat them as valued human beings.

This obviously will require strong leadership. The good news is that to lead the smartest people in the building, you don't need to be smarter than them.

3 Keys to Leading the Knowledge Worker

Like all high performers, knowledge workers take pride in their work and want to serve their customers well. And they want to grow and reach new possibilities along their career path. 

Three ways leaders can engage and inspire their knowledge workers are:

1. Redistribute decision making.

In a knowledge economy, top-down hierarchical management styles that direct traffic one-way with no input will collapse, because employees typically know more than bosses do about their own areas of specialization.

And being closer to the ground, they may also know more about the customer's needs, wishes, and expectations to problem solve, delight, and offer a richer customer experience. That's why Drucker advised managers, "Knowledge workers have to manage themselves. They have to have autonomy."

Conversely, high-performing organizations that empower their knowledge workers are typically flatter. Information is shared openly across fewer reporting levels, and people are able to use it to make the right decisions quicker.

Take a cue from luxury retail chain Nordstrom, headquartered in Seattle. It has a strong culture of empowering its employees to make decisions on the frontlines. In Nimble, Focused, Feisty, author Sara Roberts, executive consultant to Fortune 500 companies, describes the Nordstrom way:

Nordstrom structures itself so that employees are empowered to treat customers as they themselves would like to be treated. Employees are encouraged to exercise good judgment to do whatever is necessary to satisfy the customer. Meanwhile, the hierarchy of the organization is structured to support those front-line employees in that task. Why? Because Nordstrom believes that the relationships between customer and employee is critical to capturing that customer long-term. 

Other organizations that distribute decision-making flatten their authority closest to the user, research, product, or market because this is where the best solutions will be recognized and can be responded to most quickly. 

2. Support and lead teamwork.

In the knowledge economy, leaders build community by developing strong relationships. This means investing in time with your most valued workers to learn who they really are. 

Let me ask you a question: As a leader, how well do you know the people who work closest to you? Do you know the events of their lives that have shaped who they are today? Do you know their dreams and plans for the future? Leaders use relationships and strong bonds to foster great collaboration. 

In supporting a team atmosphere, leaders leverage relationships to make sure there's alignment between their workers' personal goals and the company's business goals. When it's clear that there's misalignment, leaders must find a happy compromise (as long as it doesn't hurt the business).

Supporting and leading teamwork extends to valuing workers' input on things like hiring and promotion decisions. Leaders may even charge the team with new team member performance to show trust in their judgment.

In the end, ensuring a strong team approach comes down to leaders checking their egos at the door and relying on the collective wisdom of the team.

Karen Dillon, the former editor of Harvard Business Review and a co-author of Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice, writes in HBR:

When I finally focused on being a real leader, instead of a nervous new manager, I started asking my colleagues how we could best get the work done rather than simply figuring it out by myself. I think it signaled to them that I cared about their opinion and expertise, and that I was not assuming I was a one-man band.

Dillon says that her team ended up winning a top industry award the following year -- an achievement she attributes to a strong team, but only after she let them have a hold of the reins. 

3. Listen more than talk to show you value their expertise.

This is really an extension of the last point because it's so important for success. Building personal relationships is the best way to make sure your employees feel heard. This means the most receptive leaders will listen to their needs, ask what matters most to them, and genuinely figure out a way to develop them in the direction they want to go. 

Retired U.S. Air Force colonel, leadership consultant, and author Lee Ellis recently interviewed Tom Crawford of Crawford Corporate Coaching, who framed knowledge workers in such a succinct way:

  • Knowledge is powerful.
  • Knowledge shared is more powerful.
  • Knowledge from the people in the company who touch it every day is the most powerful of all.

Expanding on these points in his LinkedIn post, Ellis says that "leaders need to be listening to the ideas and insights from people at the lower levels." While that's seems like a no-brainer, Ellis says the opposite is often true: "The higher you go in the organization, the harder it is to 'lean down' and listen." 

"Strategic listening is not a natural, common practice among busy senior leaders, because it requires time and patience and a positive belief in the power and capacity of others," states Ellis.

He adds, "And like all the other great leadership attributes, strategic listening requires the rare leadership combination of confidence and humility that few of us naturally have."

Closing Thoughts

If you find yourself managing the smartest people in the room, remember this: The universal human need of every knowledge worker is not unlike that of the rest of us. It's to perform meaningful work, be respected, collaborate in a tight-knit community of excellence and shared values, and ultimately make an impact for good in the world. And the biggest aspiration for their leaders is a matter of the heart: to make their people better workers and better human beings.