Leadership: You don’t have to wait for the future of work

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Annie was exactly the kind of boss you want at your company. Her team was a top producer. People loved to work for her. Some team members had been there for more than a decade. The ones who left almost always left for a great job somewhere else.

That “somewhere else” is important. “Slave ship” is the best way to describe the company Annie worked for. Sure, it was making good time, but it wasn’t any fun down there on the rowing benches. Except for Annie’s bench.

Annie contacted me and asked me to come in, talk to her team, and tell them how they could do better. Honestly, I didn’t do much telling.

I did a lot of asking. I asked Annie’s team members what they liked about working there, why the team was productive, and why they stayed so long. I asked what they would like different. Toward the end of my interviews, a middle-aged man on the team leaned forward and looked me in the eye. Here’s what he said:

“I read a lot of leadership books. And there’s all those books about how the future of work is going to be different. We don’t have to wait for the future.”

You don’t have to wait for the future either. If you’re a boss, someone responsible for the performance of a team, you can create the future, right there, right now.

Help People Do Good Work on Their Own

We love autonomy. We love making important choices about what and when and where we’re going to work. You can create a working environment where people get to do that as much as possible.

Support them with training, coaching, and resources. Help them learn the basics as fast as they can. Then, give them the time and the freedom to make their own work choices. Add in plenty of encouragement and coaching but get out of the way.

Help People Achieve Their Goals

After people learn the basics of their job and become productive on their own, your challenge shifts to helping them grow and develop. You must learn what matters to them and where they want to go. That means lots of conversations when you listen a lot more than you talk.

Help team members become masters of their craft. Help prepare them for what’s next in their lives.

You’ll need a lot of mistake tolerance. People who are growing and pushing their performance envelope make more mistakes than people who are just going through the motions. Learn to let go. Those mistakes are the price you pay for superior performance in the future.

Help People Become Contributing Members of a Great Team

Your first challenge as team leader is to keep your team members safe. That means safe from each other, safe from you, and safe from The Powers That Be. One supervisor I talked with years ago said that he thought his primary job was to be his team’s “s–t umbrella.”

You’re the boss, so you’re the one who delivers consequences. Make sure those consequences, positive or negative, match up with the behavior that generated them.

Be fair. Nobody ever sets out to be unfair, but as a boss, you’ll get to make a lot of decisions about consequences for your team members. Make sure the process of reaching a decision is as fair as the consequence.

Make sure you’re not playing favorites. Don’t depend on your own perceptions for this. Get feedback from others.

In your career as a boss, you’ll have what I call “issue magnets.” Those are the people who constantly create turmoil. They’re always around when something disruptive happens, even if they’re not the most obvious disruptor.

Issue magnets can kill good team morale. They’re usually slippery, unpleasant to deal with, and take up a ton of your time. That’s part of the job. Issue magnets will make you earn your money.

There are some issue magnets who are also stars. You’ll be tempted to keep them even though they disrupt everyone else. Don’t succumb. There’s no place for jerks on a good team. And work is a team sport.


Empower team members to do good work, then get out of their way.

Help team members unearth their personal goals, then help them achieve those goals.

Help the team stay healthy and productive.

Help “issue magnets” change. If they won’t, help them leave.

You can create the future of work in your place, no matter where you are.

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