The Brainpower Age

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I can still see the pain on his face. He had just come from one of his team’s product review meetings with Bill Gates. I wasn’t there, but the meeting was later described to me as a full-on train wreck. Filled with the raised voices, snide comments, and questioning of IQ, so common in the company at the time. Most of it was born of frustration, certainly, but I’d been in similar meetings. Project reviews that didn’t go well were more than simply not fun, they hurt.

The man across the desk from me for my biweekly one-on-one meeting was Mike Maples. Mike was the senior Vice President for the product group, in charge of the most important one-third of Microsoft. The group that created all the software that made the company billions.

Mike in many ways seemed larger than life. He was a big man who, like me, struggled with his weight. We commiserated about that often. One of the smartest people I know, Mike had a soft-touch way of leading that was as contagious as his huge smile and joyous laugh.

I was responsible for software development best practices across the company, and I reported directly to Mike. That day, he tossed aside our agenda and just asked me to help him understand why it happened. Why did this project fail? It was led by some of the most careful and studious managers in the company. They tracked all the metrics, set rigorous deadlines, and logged every detail. And yet the product had just been cancelled because it was hopelessly behind schedule with no hope for redemption. All that mountain of data had done was carefully track the project as it circled the drain.

It had happened before. Projects struggled for no obvious reason. Mike asked me to see if I could figure out what separated the successful projects from those that failed. We certainly had plenty of each, what was the difference?

That simple question over 20 years ago led me to the most important research project of my life. It produced results that helped the company then, and continue to be referenced today. But more importantly, it changed my thinking about how organizations work and what makes great leaders. It went so far as to affect my view of the fundamental nature of much of the work that’s done these days. And that’s what this is all about.

This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

In this podcast, we’ll take a look at how people meet the challenge of managing smart people in this Brainpower Age. Each episode, we’ll explore everyday problems and provide practical tools you can use to be a better and smarter leader.

In this episode we’ll explore the way work has changed in just a few generations, and how that effects leadership in the era of the knowledge worker. This is Episode Two: The Brainpower Age.

Over the next couple of months, following that meeting with Mike, I interviewed dozens of managers and employees, and reviewed a broad range of metrics. It was extremely enlightening. I shared my findings in a paper that has been widely hailed, even today many years later.  We’ll talk much more about this research in future episodes, largely because it so profoundly impacted my thinking about how organizations work.

One of the key findings was that the successful projects shared a common trait rarely found in ones that failed. It wasn’t some project management tool or technique. It wasn’t a particular organization structure or even leadership style. No, it was much less textbook than that.

The successful projects all had a clear, crisp vision for what the project was trying to achieve. And that vision was widely held, nearly universally bought into, from top to bottom in the organization. The vision was systemic, everyone knew what they were doing, and most importantly, everyone believed in it.

In the less successful projects, the vision was often muddy, or complex, or set by some corporate mandate. Or perhaps the management team had a clear vision, but it wasn’t widely shared, or worse wasn’t widely believed to be important. In short: the team just wasn’t, as they say, “all in”.

Paradoxically, some of the projects that failed were like the one from that review: the most carefully run. They tracked metrics and project status, they had meetings and spreadsheets to show where they were. Most often, though, all that data was filled with red flags and merely served to track the project’s decline. It was as though those managers had substituted process and paperwork for a clear, shared vision.

It might seem obvious that teams with a shared purpose would excel. It’s a tired movie cliché where the underdog succeeds based solely on their grit and teamwork. But it surprised me that something so nebulous as the team’s mental state could overwhelm the best and most careful management tools. That creating great software depended so heavily on the attitudes and motivations of the many people building it.

This was fascinating and clearly something the company needed to pay close attention to. I wrote a paper, gave talks, and it was exceptionally well received. I’ve even had people show me their dogeared copy of the paper some twenty years later. They still reference it occasionally.

At the time, I thought this must be exclusive to the tech industry. That tech attracted a special breed of employee that required this kind of special nurturing. But when I became VP of HR and had the chance to interact with many of my peers in the rest of the Fortune 500, I realized it was a much broader issue.

Since my time at Microsoft I’ve had the chance to work with a number of organizations large and small, and advise a number of leaders across a range of disciplines. I’ve realized that the issue, at its core, is the very nature of knowledge work. This impacts more than just a few industries, or just a few jobs. It’s part of a much larger trend. It’s because we’ve entered the Brainpower Age.

150 years ago, in the mid 19th century, over half the US workforce worked in agriculture, mostly doing highly manual labor. The goal for many was a plot of land and the horsepower to help tame it. By the mid 20th century, a great job was manning a machine that built horsepower, manufacturing Mustangs at the Ford plant outside Detroit. Today, in the 21st century, that great job is coding search engines for server farms at Google in Silicon Valley. Within a relatively short period of time, 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 products themselves, but rather their concepts and designs. Employees are valued less for their manual dexterity than for their mental acuity.

Much of today’s work requires imagination, skills, creativity, and teamwork. This is the kind of work done by designers, programmers, architects, and advertising professionals who create for a living. It’s executives, managers, and technicians who organize and problem solve every day. It’s educators, lawyers, and financiers who communicate and sell their ideas to others. 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 work. And they want to enjoy the culture in which they work.

All of this is because of the kind of work they do. It’s hard to be creative and ingenious when you don’t have 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 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 workers 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. 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?”

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, subject to the laws of supply and demand. It was easily tracked, measured, and controlled. X amount of hours meant Y amount of widgets produced. If someone produced fewer widgets than expected, that was a problem. If it continued, they were gone. And a replacement was waiting at the door.

But managing in the brainpower age is nowhere near as straightforward. It’s a whole new set of challenges.

  • First, the output of intellectual workers is difficult to track and measure. Measuring ideas has always been hard. Assigning metrics to them, as many people try to do, is not only futile but often counterproductive.

  • Second, skills and knowledge are not interchangeable. People are a complex mix of talents and expertise. Individualism is not just a fact of life among brainpower workers, but is often celebrated part of these kinds of jobs.

  • Third, recruiting knowledge workers is a challenge. Not only are they often hard to find, but assessing their skills and talent at the time of hire is difficult, if not impossible. Managers result to all kinds of convoluted tests and interview tricks to try to make quality hires, and they often fail.

  • Then, when hired, it takes far longer to get newly hired knowledge workers on board. It’s not as simple as, “here’s a shovel, now get digging.” You need to get them not only up to speed on often complex and technical business problems, but also to help them effectively merge with the organization’s culture.

  • And perhaps most importantly, motivating knowledge workers is hardly straightforward. Manual labor can be motivated with quotas and piecework compensation. But pressuring people to be creative or passionate is about as effective as pushing a rope. And let’s face it, some of these creative types can even be downright finicky.

Because of all these challenges, many leaders are falling far short when faced with managing in this world. Managers, and even most people in HR, want it all to be easy and predictable. They want it to be like writing code: this person is good or they aren’t. They’re worth this much, or they’re not.

With vague and complex work, it’s impossible to assign a numbered score. You can’t simply stack rank your organization and fire the bottom 10%. No personality test or 360-degree feedback is going to magically create a great team. And annual performance reviews on the bullet-list decorated form required by HR accompanied by a 2% raise – isn’t going to motivate anyone.

On the contrary, anyone who’s done it knows that leading these days is tough. It requires at least as much creativity from the leaders as it does from the knowledge workers themselves.

These challenges also cut across many industries. It fills me with nearly boundless curiosity:

  • Lawyers are mostly highly independent knowledge workers, who persuade people for a living. What’s it like to lead a team of lawyers who have to work together on an enormous case?

  • Architects are highly creative, but their components literally have to fit together perfectly. How do you hire and manage a team for a massive building project?

  • The film industry brings together a huge team that exists only for the life of a project that lasts just a few months, and then moves on. How do you quickly build a cohesive team centered on one highly creative goal?

  • Teachers are often very independent people who are literally in the business of knowledge. They are perhaps the purest of knowledge workers. How do you reward their creativity and still keep everyone focused on the larger curriculum?

  • And, of course, there’s the tech industry. How does a tech company build enormously complex products using teams of thousands of brainpower workers yet still stay headed in a common direction and also on the leading edge?

And for all of these people, how do you evaluate their performance in a meaningful and constructive way? How can you fairly critique creative people without spoiling their morale?

That’s what Leading Smart is all about.

In this podcast, I’ll be exploring the challenges of building teams of these “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 prima donnas? Where does money fit in the equation? How do you measure and reward performance? What role does diversity play in building not only great teams but great products? There are so many interesting challenges that arise when the output is largely just brainpower.

I’ll speak from my experience as a leader of large technology teams and the former head of HR at Microsoft at the height of the dot-com boom. In addition, I plan to talk to leaders

who’ve been able to figure it out, and those struggling to make it work – both managers and brainpower employees who they’re trying to lead.

But we’ll start with some issues that face leaders in these spaces. The first several episodes will each be founded on a particular challenge and provide specific and explicit advice on how to meet it.  All of this to help you to be a better and smarter leader in the Brainpower Age.

Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site, That’s Or find me on social media as theCLWill.

As a new podcast, Leading Smart could really use your support. Please subscribe and rate the show in whatever podcast app you use. Tell your friends about it as well.

I also hope you’ll participate. Do you have questions about managing people? Do you work in an industry that faces these kinds of challenges? Are you, or do you know, someone I should be interviewing? Let me know. Each episode has a page on my web site, and comments are welcome. Or just send me an email to I can’t promise I’ll answer or interview everyone, but I’ll read every email I get.

That’s it for this episode. The next episode will be on one of my bedrock rules: I call it Duck and Cover. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.