Taxi Driver Leadership Insights






Yesterday I visited one of our Bersin members.  En route from the airport to the hotel, I encountered a particularly philosophical taxi driver who asked me a thought-provoking question:  “What is the difference between a ruler and a leader?  It is a four letter word and starts with ‘F’.”

Do you know the answer?  I didn’t. 

His response:  “Fear.” 

This taxi driver's riddle comes at a particularly poignant time for the talent management practice here at Bersin.  In the last nine months, we’ve published research for our members on abolishing the performance appraisal score, performance coaching, and the role of employee recognition.  I was actually in Texas (where I met this taxi driver) to speak on the benefits and challenges of moving to a distributed workforce.  The common theme in all of these topics is the importance of trust, motivation and empowerment in the workplace.  The taxi driver's riddle crystalized for me that our research is really about how to create organizations full of leaders who encourage and support each other in doing their best work – and how to move beyond environments filled with fear. 

Our research shows that more organizations (70%) lean toward a highly supportive work environment – what we call the coaching and development model of performance management – than ever before.  In the press, an increasing number of articles tell stories of companies that have taken this approach (sometimes to the extreme) and flouted traditional command-and-control management.  For example, the Wall Street Journal recently featured an article on the boss-less organization.  In that article, the Journal highlights W.L. Gore (an organization we wrote about in our study on performance management strategy), which has no hierarchies (everyone is called an associate) and people join projects that interest them most.  Another organization that does this is Valve, where employees choose which projects to join based on their interests and the ones they think are most likely to be successful.  

Will this somewhat utopian view of work fit every organization?  No, most certainly not.  However, what is refreshing about these organizations is their thoughtfulness in identifying how people work best within their own cultures and constraints and then pursuing management approaches aligned with those beliefs.  As we discuss in the Kelly Services case study, one of the most important exercises an organization can engage in is understanding leaders’ underlying assumptions about people and then adjusting the organization’s practices and policies so they align with the behaviors necessary for the organization to succeed (see Figure 1).  There is no performance management just because there has always been performance management at companies like W.L. Gore and Valve.

Figure 1:  Kelly Services’ Approach to Thinking about Employee Behaviors

Source:  Kelly Services and Bersin & Associates, 2012.

I’d like to encourage you to think about the following questions over the weekend: 

1) What are my organization’s assumptions about how people perform best?  How does that affect our practices and policies, and ultimately employee behaviors?
2) What is the proportion of leaders to rulers – and do those proportions align with the organization’s assumptions about people?
3) If our assumptions and proportions are out of line, what initiatives do we currently have under way that I can influence to help get these two more aligned?

Happy Friday – and may you have a philosophical taxi-driver in your near future.


Stacia Garr

Stacia Garr writes on trends and best practices in talent management, focusing on topics such as performance management, employee engagement, career management and workforce planning. In her blog, she likes to share what she’s learned about how to make talent management programs more frequent, collaborative, engaging and effective.

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