Power to the People! Everyone wants to feel empowered to do their job. What this means is having the resources and support to do one’s job successfully. This definitely means different things for the different levels of people in the organization. For senior employees and managers your job is to act as a facilitator. For more junior employees you need to define clear boundaries for success. As a manager you want to treat people fairly – but because of their different strengths and experiences that does not mean that you should treat everyone the same.
The strange thing I have learned is that a lot of people feel that they need permission to be empowered – even senior employees. I was at a company leading a group of managers that felt like they were being setup to fail. The product deadlines were looming and there was no way that the amount of work remaining could possibly fit into the schedule. What do you think was happening? Everyone was furiously heads down trying to just get it done. Work wasn’t getting prioritized so the programmers were just doing what they thought was important. The managers were arguing amongst themselves about whose fault it was that they agreed to such a large unachievable workload. The project was clearly destined to fail. The end date would have come and gone and the work would not have been done and the commitment to the customer would not have been met. I worked with the team on a replan – I pushed, I questioned, but I let the team make the decisions based on their expertise. I gave them permission to only keep what was most important in the release. We spent a few weeks of the manager’s time – allowing the tech work to continue – reprioritizing and rescoping In reality what happened is that I had the team focus on what we could do – not what we couldn’t do. The exec team was glad to see the team so proactive and so committed to the end date. A lot of creativity went into figuring out what was needed to have a successful product and the team began working together instead of blaming one another. all of the work on the schedule. The managers were anxious. They were afraid that the executive team would come back and say “no – you said you’d do all this other stuff”.
That was a successful situation with senior people. Sometimes giving people permission to change the rules isn’t enough to empower them to do their job successfully. When I was a junior manager I had a programmer working for me who wanted to own a development effort which was something that he had never done before. He had always worked as part of a team. I gave him a pretty high profile assignment that involved technology that he had never worked with before. I told him to run with it. Big mistake. I had just come out of a role where I was the head of the product architecture team. I knew that I would have loved to have an assignment like that. I figured that everyone else would love to have an assignment like that too and would be able to figure out what to do. I was very wrong. This is when I learned that just because something is really obvious to you doesn’t mean that it will be obvious to someone else – especially if they are in a new role. The less senior an individual is the more guidance they need in order to be successful and to feel empowered. What I should have done is helped him find the resources he needed to learn the tech. I should have sat down with him and helped him work through the steps he would need to do to complete the project. Instead I just sent him off to fail. Not everyone will need that kind of help, even as a junior employee – but keeping in the loop will help you recognize when you have to provide that guidance. Sadly, after a couple of months he left the company when it was clear that he wasn’t able to get the work done. The more junior the employee the more empowering them involves giving them clear direction to help them figure out how to do their jobs successfully.
Key takeaways on empowerment –
People need to understand their roles and responsibilities and agree to them. Just because you have expectations of what someone will do doesn’t mean that they are able to do it or will agree to do it. A lot of things can hold back that agreement – ability, anxiety, other commitments. Understanding and having empathy for these situations will help immensely. People need to know:
What did I agree to get done?
What kind of decisions can I make?
What things do I not have to worry about?
Additionally you need to work with people to define their goals. This can be individual ones (for more junior employees) or project and product goals for senior contributors and managers. They should be stretch goals. Something that will take some extra effort to get done. Easy to accomplish goals aren’t really useful as learning tools. On the other hand, some idealized fantasy of what you want – that just can’t be done isn’t helpful either.
Make sure that this goal is compelling and exciting. Setting a goal that someone doesn’t want to accomplish won’t make it happen. People need some skin in the game.
This brings me to the point – set people up to succeed – not to fail. The best way to do this is to provide support and guidance as needed based on the individual you are working with.
Ask questions – get an understanding of where the issues are. Listen – really hear what the person is saying.Learn to read them. Is this a big issue? Something they can manage but want to vent about? Are they overwhelmed and anxious?
I once had a senior engineer reporting to me who always came to my office asking me how he should solve problems. Clearly he had the experience to make the decisions that were necessary. At first I tried to ask him all the questions that I would need to make the decision myself, but I realized that it really wasn’t helping him grow. Over time I started to lead with “well, what would you suggest that we do?” Amazingly when I did that it became clear that he already had a really good idea of what he thought was the right course of action. He could explain it well, he could argue the pros and cons. He just didn’t feel empowered to make the decision until I asked him what we should do. Lesson learned – when a solution is forthcoming – stay out of the way! Enable it –encourage it, but don’t drive it. Don’t micromanage and second guess everything. People need the leeway to do their jobs in the best way for them. Over time this engineer came to me less and less with questions about what should we do and started to come to me with the mindset of this is the problem, and this is what we need to do about it. He became fully empowered to do his job.
There are times however when people get stuck. They can’t move forward. You have to make sure that you aren’t so out of the loop that you don’t realize that a trainwreck is imminent. Not having the ability to intercede in time can really shatter staff confidence. Also, not being involved makes people think that management doesn’t care about the outcome. A number of years ago I managed a software development team building a networking router. The boot sequence to bring up the box was very flaky. Testing was tough, scenarios were not reproduceable because of the unreliability of bringing the router up. This was really wrecking productivity and the engineers were all grousing about it, but nobody would take ownership.I pulled together a cross functional team that ran a short term sprint to clean up the problems. I held daily meetings to make sure people were on track, I locked down the hardware needed for testing, and I got buyin hardware and software managers to contribute engineers to the cause to work together as a team. In a couple of weeks close to 100 problems were fixed and the system became much more stable. The experience also broke down barriers between the engineers across multiple departments and when future problems occurred they worked together much more effectively. from
By doing these types of things, you are championing the team’s success. Find ways to help them succeed and when they do, give credit to all involved. Yes, it was your project too, but remembering the hard work of everyone involved will yield dividends longterm. The team will be more engaged and empowered to do their work, and you will be recognized as a leader who doesn’t steal all of the glory for yourself.