The Brainpower Age

Work has changed significantly in just a few generations. A nation once occupied by mostly farm and factory work has become one highlighted by computer and creative work.


From field to factory to brainpower
Evolution of Work

150 years ago, over half the US workforce worked in agriculture, mostly doing highly manual labor. 50 years ago, a great job was running a machine that built Mustangs at the Ford plant outside Detroit. Today it’s coding search engines at Google in Silicon Valley. In little more than a century, the world of work has transitioned from manpower to horsepower, to machine power, and now brainpower. The industrial age has given way to the brainpower age.

This shift is accelerating as more physical production is outsourced to third world countries. What remains in the first world is the knowledge-based work that produces not the widgets themselves, but rather their concepts and designs. Employees are valued less for their manual dexterity and more for their mental dexterity.

This kind of “knowledge work” is done by anyone who creates, problem solves, and communicates for a living.

This knowledge work requires imagination, skills, creativity, and teamwork that are built from education and experience. This is the kind of work done by designers, programmers, architects, and advertising professionals who create for a living. It’s also executives, managers, and technicians who organize and problem solve every day. It’s even educators, lawyers, and financiers who communicate and sell their ideas.

This kind of “knowledge work” is done by anyone who creates, problem solves, and communicates for a living.While the work has changed over the last many years, so too has the meaning of work for many of these brainpower employees. They don’t want to simply punch a clock and grind through a work day. They want more from a job than simply a paycheck. They want to be doing something meaningful. They want to be recognized for their unique contributions. And they want to enjoy the culture in which they work.

This is all tied into the kind of work they do. It’s hard to be creative and ingenious when you don’t have a certain passion for the work, and for what you’re creating. In order to get the best work out of someone’s brain, they have to be fully engaged and even passionate about the outcome. That’s when miracles happen.

The Brainpower Age
For an extended discussion of the effect of knowledge workers in the workplace, listen to my podcast on The Brainpower Age.

Power Shift

The balance of power in the workplace has also changed for these knowledge workers. Unlike years past, where loyalty to your employer was simply expected, today’s employees want employers to earn their loyalty. Ease of changing jobs has given the employee much more power and they aren’t afraid to leverage it. Nationwide mobility, the ease of moving around, and even the ability to work remotely has changed the tenure of employment dramatically.

It used to be that it wasn’t uncommon for people to stay in the same job for decades. Better to stay with the job you had than risk taking a chance on another job where everything was new. This was a time when a short job on a resume was under 10 years. Potential employers would ask you what when wrong. Today a long stint at the same job is two or three years. Friends today ask each other, “wow how’d you stick it out so long?”

Managing in the brainpower age isn’t as straightforward as it used to be.

This has all lead to a significant shift in how teams are built and lead. Managing people used to be fairly simple. Labor was a fungible resource not that dissimilar from most business inputs, a commodity to be managed. It was subject to supply and demand, and it was easily tracked, measured, and controlled. X amount of hours meant Y amount of widgets. If someone produced fewer widgets than expected, that was a problem. If it continued, they were gone. And when one worker left, a replacement was waiting at the door.

Managing in the brainpower age isn’t as straightforward as it used to be. The output of these intellectual workers is difficult to track and measure. Their skills and knowledge are not interchangeable. Recruiting and retaining knowledge workers is a challenge. It takes far longer to get them up to speed and producing effectively. It’s not a simple, “here’s a shovel, now dig.” More importantly motivating knowledge workers is a constant struggle — some of them can be downright finicky.


Because of the challenges, many leaders are falling far short when faced with the challenges of managing in this world. Most of the old school management techniques fall short. Annual performance reviews (on the form required by HR and accompanied by a 2.5% raise) just aren’t going to cut it. You can’t simply stack rank your organization and fire the bottom 10%. With vague and complex work, it’s almost impossible to assign everyone a numbered score. And no personality test or 360-degree feedback is going to magically create a great team.

Anyone who’s done it knows that leading these days is tough.

Managers, and even most people in HR, want it all to be easy, predictable. They want it to be like it was with factory work or manual labor: the person is good or they aren’t. They’re worth this much, or they’re not.

On the contrary, anyone who’s done it knows that leading these days is tough. Hiring just the right people is hard. The culture of each team needs individual attention along with careful care and feeding. The employees need to be motivated by more than simply money. The very quality of the work is dependent on a complex mix of skill, collaboration, and vision. There are dozens of levers to manage as a leader, and each situation and every team seems different.

The Mission

That’s what Leading Smart is all about. Here we explore the challenges of building teams of knowledge workers. We’ll explore all the nuances of hiring, retaining, and firing. How do you motivate people, earn their loyalty, and build a culture everyone can be proud of? How do you deal with the prima donnas, where does money fit in the equation, and how do you measure and reward performance? Even what role does diversity play in building not only great teams but great products? There are many interesting challenges that arise when the output is largely just brainpower.

This is Managing in the Brainpower Age.