Tips for moving from "overseer" to "seer"

As many workplaces continue to work remotely and the business community contemplates whether businesses with office-based functions will ever return 100%, shifting from a command and control approach to leadership and management to one of outcomes-based performance feedback, will be crucial to the success of organisations and individual leaders.

The Overseer


In industrial-age workplaces - a shop, factory, plant or office - the overseer was the manager required to watch everyone, clipboard in hand, ensuring the employees were doing what they were supposed to be doing, working at optimum speed, not taking shortcuts and delivering to the schedule.


The overseer stereotypically lacked vision and initiative, following a set of processes or standards dictated from the top; using power and control to evoke fear and compliance - they were often afraid for their jobs too, as they would be held accountable for any failures.


As a result, employees predominantly did what they were supposed to be doing while supervised; then took the chance to slack off or take unscheduled breaks when the manager was not looking.


While the modern overseer manager may not be quite so industrial-age in their approach, they may still feel very uncomfortable not being able to see their people, watch what they're doing, so they can jump in if it looks like it's going awry, and ensure that their team were busy doing.


There is a current glut of software companies taking advantage of the remote-working circumstances around the globe, touting platforms that allow organisations to 'monitor' their employees and get peace of mind that their team are still being productive. This type of "remote control" plays to the insecurities of the overseer.

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The Seer


A mythical person who is all-knowing, all-seeing, without the need to be physically present.


In the modern era, in a business context, such a person is referred to as a visionary leader.


They recognise that their team have individual talents, they respect the differences within their team, embrace and encourage feedback, and care about their individual team members as whole people, not just who they are at work.


The seer doesn't need to know what their people are doing from minute to minute; they don't flip out when one of their team advises they are unwell or taking the afternoon off to participate in a school activity; instead, they provide direction and guidance, make timely decisions, and remove obstacles.


Because they know what questions to ask, they often foresee challenges ahead and assist with clearing the way before the issue has time to become an obstacle.Visionary leaders are proactive, not reactive.


But above all, the seer trusts. They believe that their people are doing what needs to be done and trust that their team are committed to the cause. How? Because they see it in the outcomes, they hear it in the feedback, and witness the discretionary effort.

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them. – Ernest Hemingway

So if you want to move from overseer to seer, what do you need to do? Here are the qualities of a visionary leader:


  1. Empathy - there is wisdom in the old adage of "walk in some else's shoes". None of us like to feel that we aren't trusted, or aren't valued, or cared about. If your manager was always assuming that you were not doing the right thing, not "putting in your hours", they constantly criticised your work, and didn't seem to care when you went through a rough patch; how would it make you feel? If you're not particularly empathetic, fake it; imagine your team are made up of people about whom you do care and treat them accordingly.

  2. Trust - we bring people into our organisation because they are skilled and talented. Particularly with knowledge workers, we can and should trust that with the proper resources, guidelines and clear articulation of the required outcomes, they will get on and deliver.

  3. Feedback - consistent direct, respectful, kind and constructive feedback is the key to building empathy, trust, and achieving outcomes.

  4. Accountability - there is absolutely nothing wrong with holding your team accountable; in fact it is imperative. Human nature is such that if we are not held accountable, we can easily slip into negative habits, behaviours and/or thinking, which undermines our ability to achieve outcomes.

  5. Clarity - be clear about the expectations. If you are a visionary leader, the expectations are not "your" expectations, they are what is required of the role, or the targets of the organisation. You are not the parent, boss, or overseer; you are the guide, the coach and the supporter.

From a practical perspective, here are actions you can take to shift your leadership style to 'visionary':

  1. Position Description Review - are the position descriptions in your organisation focused on 'doing'? As per the quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery above - setting out a list of tasks will keep your team members busy, but not necessarily achieving. By changing to an outcomes-based style of position description that describes the deliverables for the role, rather than how they should do it (often in minute detail); allows the team member to feel empowered to use their experience, innovation and creativity to work out the 'how'.

  2. Feedback Culture - I'm going to say it.... the annual performance appraisal should be dead... because regular, consistent and meaningful feedback makes an annual appraisal obsolete. There is nothing more engaging for an employee than individual, consistent, focused, relationship-building feedback, which is both given and received; barriers to success are identified, discussed and addressed; and recognition for achievements is noted and appreciated.

  3. Connectivity - visionary leaders don't believe they have to have the answers for everything; in fact they are comfortable with their limitations and fallibility. They accept that theirs isn't always the best idea, they are not always right, and they won't have the solution for every challenge. Visionary leaders create strong networks within and outside their organisation; and draw on these networks, connecting themselves and their people to the right person/s at the right time to help ensure success. To do this, a visionary leader regularly speaks with others about what the team are working on, to see if anyone is doing something similar, or has previously addressed similar problems, or knows someone who has.



A visionary leader has the telescope pointed to the horizon. They don't have their people under the microscope.



If you would like support moving from 'overseer to 'seer' with coaching, discussion, mentoring or tools and resources, give me a call on 0412 158 588 or email me at martha.travis@optusnet.com.au.


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