By Bill Hellkamp

When the quality trend first hit, I was employed at a small company as a full commission sales person. I had been there a number of years and dealt with territory and commission issues along with the rest of my peers. Because of our complaints, Larry (the owner) had decided to put a team of people together from different areas of the company to come up with a solution. In his initial meeting with us, Larry reinforced how important this group was and how much he appreciated our participation. In addition, he assured us that he trusted our judgement and would implement our solutions when we completed our work. In other words, we were empowered!

empowermentWith that inspiration in our hearts, we set out over the next few months to craft a policy that would be both practical and equitable. Finally, we finished our plan and were excited to present it to the owner. With him in attendance at our next meeting, we explained our proposal to him and expounded on the logic behind each of our decisions. While he listened with interest, I could tell that he didn’t agree with all the policy changes we were recommending. At the end of the meeting he said the he would need to consider our conclusions and get back to us. Hmmm? We left feeling less empowered but still hopeful.

A week later he called us all together and informed us that he was instituting many of our recommendations and was thankful for the work we did. But in reality he only instituted a couple of minor changes and ignored the most crucial ones. Boss 1 – Empowerment 0! I was angry! Not only did I feel I had been deceived, but because I was on full commission, the time I put into the process came out of my paycheck. Never being one to shirk from a dispute, I went in to talk to Larry. After a little discussion I finally said, “Next time you want to empower us, just tell us what decision you’ve already made, and we’ll pretend to come up with it. It will save us all a lot of time.” He told me that I needed to work on my attitude and he was probably right. But I never did join in another “decision making” group for that company.

Empowerment is difficult and sometimes hard to swallow as the leader. But it can provide valuable ideas and help your team to grow beyond their current position. Here are some factors that you need to employ to truly empower your staff.

The opportunity to make mistakes.  A challenge for many leaders is allowing their people to make mistakes, especially when they can so clearly see those mistakes coming. The trick is, of course, to allow them to make small mistakes and learn from them while protecting the organization from errors that can be costly or cause long term damage. As leaders we need to put people in positions where they can succeed, but also ones that stretch them to try new ideas and approaches. And sometimes new ideas and approaches fail. What matters is that the person is able to dissect their mistakes and learn from them. During his tenure as President and CEO of IBM, Thomas J. Watson was asked if he planned on firing an employee who had made a $600,000 mistake. Watson replied, “I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience?”
The opportunity to set their own goals. Most leaders will insist that their staff have goals and strive to attain them. Likely those goals are a subset of the leader’s goals. For example, the sales manager’s goal for her area is $12 million, so one sales person might have a goal of $2 million while another has a goal of $3 million and so on until the total reaches her overall goal. All too often that same sales manager will sit down and examine the abilities and territories of each sales person, compare it to their achievements of the past year and determine the sales goal for each member of her team. Then with great flourish at the sales meeting she will reveal their goal. While she is expecting enthusiasm and commitment, she will usually receive disbelief and anger. Ultimately, some of the sales people will see their goals as unattainable and give up on them almost before they get started.

In order to work for goals we must believe in them. This is much more likely to happen if we have a hand in setting them. Then when challenges occur (as they always do), we are willing to fight to overcome them – because we have a greater belief in them! In the word of Olympic figure skater, Kristi Yamaguchi, “I learned about setting goals for yourself, knowing where you want to be and taking small steps toward those goals. I learned about adversity and how to get past it.”

Guidance, not instructions. Empowerment doesn’t happen if all one does is follow instructions. That is merely task achievement. A person must not only be able to set their own goals, but also choose how those goals will get accomplished. A few years ago I was consulting for a manufacturing organization and the owner was a real control freak. Every decision right down to the color of the salesperson’s car went across his desk for approval. Eventually he sold the company to a venture capital firm and I was present as the new president met with his leadership team, almost all of whom had worked for the owner for 20 years or more. Early on in the meeting the incoming leader asked them for their opinion on a particular matter and I could see them looking to one another for guidance. In their years of experience they hadn’t ever been asked for their opinion and they had no idea how to deal with the question. After a few tries I could see that the president was concluding that this was not the leadership team for the future. Within 2 months, 80% of them were gone. If you choose to make all the decisions for the team, then just give them instructions to follow. Your team will never develop the leadership skills they need to advance. The good ones will leave and you will be left with those that have no- where else to go.

Support their decisions. Author Terry Goodkind warns us, “Sometimes, making the wrong choice is better than making no choice. You have the courage to go forward, that is rare. A person who stands at the fork, unable to pick, will never get anywhere.” I once had a salesperson that was imbued with such self-confidence that he would talk to anyone about our service. He was so full of belief about our capabilities that he would sometimes make promises that the rest of us had to hustle to keep. While some in our organization wanted me to reel him in (or fire him), I found that his process was keeping us from becoming complacent. I was willing to discuss his issues and do my best to keep him in bounds, but I wasn’t about to destroy his enthusiasm with needless regulations. Incidentally, he was our best salesperson by a far, and many of his “mistakes” became great product enhancements. The key is not to let the fear of failure guide you, but to empower others to discover something wonderful and new.

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