Free-Range Workers Ditch Pecking Order

Posted by Mike Walsh

Oct 18, 2011 12:41:00 PM



Law graduate Mike Walsh endured 10 rounds of interviews and an exhaustive series of tests before he was offered the prize of a job with McKinsey & Co. It was 1999 and this was to be his ticket to a bright future – but he turned it down. Instead, he jumped on a plane for the United States, enthralled by the possibilities offered by the development of the internet. In that heady time of start-ups, it took little time for lunch in New York with a friend to be converted to an offer to head the Australian office of research company (later, Jupiter Research). 

But a move to News Ltd to work in group strategy in 2004 encouraged him to rethink the nature of his employment. 

“I got to the point, when I hit 30 in Australia, that I wasn’t satisfied with a corporate career path,” says Walsh.

Today, aged 35, Walsh lives and works in a way that would have seemed inconceivable a few years ago. He is, in a sense, a prototype of the kind of self-empowered knowledge worker we are likely to see a lot more of in years to come.

He has his own consumer innovation research agency, called Tomorrow, which is headquartered in Hong Kong, although he mostly lives in Turkey, where he studies the impact of technology on consumer behaviour in emerging markets.

He provides consultancy services to some of the world’s biggest corporations (Procter & Gamble, Hutchinson), but refuses to become an employer himself.

“I’ve had a few people who wanted to work for me but, instead, I offered to help set them up in their own business and offered to be a client,” he says.

He writes books (Futuretainment, Phaidon) and is on the speaker circuit as a futurist.

Walsh says his way of working is the future and employers will need to adapt. Otherwise, they will not be able to access the skills of the growing numbers of people who do not want to be tethered to an organisation and have an antipathy to being managed.

Walsh was in Sydney last week, speaking to a Randstad breakfast.

On the phone from his home office in Bondi, where he retains a local base, Walsh says the revolutionary impact of technology and social networking, and the influx into the workforce of “digital natives” (who were using keyboards before they learned to form letters with a pencil), mean that the leaders we have now are not the sort of people we will need in the future.

“One of the key capabilities [for the future] is pattern recognition,” he says.

“A traditional leader has used restriction of access, hierarchy and status to put himself on a pedestal. But the leaders of the future have to be able to spot trends, which is partly about crisis avoidance.

“I think [Apple founder] Steve Jobs was the last of the autocratic leaders. The world is too complex for one person to say ‘This is how the world is’,” says Walsh.

Future leaders also have to be gifted communicators, to be able to transmit the vision of the company to its people.

And they also need to be able to handle distributed leadership, whereby power is shared and collaborative.

The chief executive officer of technology outsourcing giant HCL Technologies, Vineet Nayar, is an example of this kind of leader, with his stream of blogs, articles, his book (Employees First, Customers Second) and his reinvention of the company structure which involves inverting the management pyramid to put the customer-facing people on top.

Walsh asks what use is there for a command-and-control CEO when the workforce is a loose confederation of freelancers (or free-minded employees) who collaborate independently through social networking tools?

Experience overseas shows that the result of these new freedoms does not have to be anarchy.

Organisations such as US textile manufacturer WL Gore & Associates and British retailer the John Lewis Partnership have thrived on shared decision-making and an absence of authority figures.

US tomato company Morning Star is the largest processor of tomatoes in the world, having evolved from its beginnings 20 years ago as a trucking company.

The company now grows, processes and transports tomatoes.

Right from its inception in 1990, the employees and the company founder, Chris Rufer, decided there was no need for a traditional company structure.

Says CEO Paul Green: “They agreed that bureaucracy was oppressive and stifling and that good people shouldn’t be stifled by policies that were intended to catch the small minority of bad people.”

They also decided they could organise themselves more effectively than a manager could, he says in a video posted on the website of the Management Innovation eXchange (a project by US management academic Gary Hamel).

Rufer says in the video that the company’s policy of allowing people to set their own goals and manage themselves is policed, in some sense, by the fact that employees’ own performance plans and agreements – and their progress – is freely available online to anyone in the organisation.

Green says: “There is really no formal anointed hierarchy.

“Some people think this is a revolutionary idea. I don’t think it is. If you think about it, people leave our facility and go home and co-ordinate and manage their lives without any authority figure managing it for them.”

Rufer agrees, saying that seven-year-olds can organise their own baseball game “but it only becomes when we are 25 or 30 years old that, suddenly, we are idiots”.

In an interview with Hamel, a professor at the London Business School, Lynda Gratton, (author of The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here) says leaders have a number of challenges, including finding themselves a role when there is no longer a need for one person to be “standing at the front” of an organisation.

“Why don’t we vote for leaders, like we do in democracies,” she asks.

Employers also need to think about how they manage succession practices and talent management when the “talent” are freelancers or in joint ventures – and not tied by full-time employment, she says.

This article appear in The Australian Financial Review


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Topics: Australia