What Makes a Great People Manager? Part 2: Empowerer

Like I mentioned before this topic is one of my favorite topics I write and teach on. I don't exactly know why. Maybe because I appreciate feeling empowered in work and life, or because as a manager I've been rewarded the most personally and professionally when I've helped to empower others or created an empowering environment that enables great performance.

Either way, its not just a big topic for me, its a big topic in leadership, management and all of business and organizational life.

Many organizations are taking up employee engagement and empowerment as strategic initiatives to improve innovation and their employee's discretionary effort and productivity.

Why Aren't People Empowered?

Many reasons, but here are just some of the big ones:

  1. Our organizations have been built to consolidate and push power to the highest levels possible.

  2. Technology has become a micro managers dream.

  3. Our organizations have become rule and policy laden all in an attempt to reduce risk associated with employees making bad decisions.

  4. People have been trained since grade school to recite, memorize, regurgitate and execute.

  5. And we haven't made it clear enough, provided enough of the right training or made it safe enough for people to be empowered and make decisions or take risks.

Who Cares if People are Empowered Anyways?

What'd You Call Me, VUCA!?!

Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. That's what VUCA stands for and its the acronym being used lately to describe our world today. Fitting isn't it? That's pretty close to what I feel and see all around me.

In his book Team of Teams, General Stan McCrystal, painted one of the most dramatic pictures of this type of environment in our world in recent history when he was charged with leading all of US special forces against Al Qaeda in Iraq.

He talks about how despite the fact that the US military was dominant in training, technology and resources, they couldn't win the war. The reason was because of how they were operating versus how Al Qaeda was operating. They were operating like a traditional hierarchy. Information goes up to the "thinkers", they plan and consider, and then instructions and direction goes down to the "doers" to execute.

This works in a complicated world, but now we're in a complex, or VUCA, world. Complicated meaning many inputs, but mostly predictable and linear, like an assembly line. Complex has many more inputs, directions and planes, closer to what it looks like in the opening hit of a billiard table. The cue ball hitting the several others causes unknown outputs of the directions of all the other balls.

The traditional hierarchy was just too slow and cumbersome. Al Qaeda was operating so much faster because they were more organized as a loose network. Every cell operated independently, there was no "head" making all the decisions. The leader was a motivator, inspirer and communicator in this structure, guiding and nudging the entire organization in the direction of the vision and goals.

It wasn't until General McCrystal moved his organization to become a hybrid of the two structures that they started winning. The two supporting approaches he called "Empowered Execution" and "Shared Consciousness".

So Again... Who Cares? Great Organizations, That's Who Cares

No one has ever achieved greatness from a place of fear or disempowerment.

If your people are scared, subtly or overtly, then you're making all the calls and taking all the risk and your team's performance is limited to you.

Organizations that have excelled in recent history have found an effective way to engage, inspire and empower their people throughout the entire organization. Patty McCord, former Chief People Officer at Netflix, even recently wrote a book about how she and the rest of the leadership team at Netflix unlocked performance through truly empowering people. The book is called Powerful and has been one of the most recommended for this year.

So basically, we're living in a crazy complex world and the organizations succeeding are engaging, involving and empowering every person in their organization. So now what?

Ok, If We Must Empower, Then How?

Clarify and Unify

Simon Sinek's book, Start With Why, is the best place to start. Simon points out that we all operate from an innate purpose, cause or mission that is deeply rooted and shaped over the course of our lives. Organizations are just groups of people getting together to live out common "whys". So every organization must first explicitly clarify its "Why" (purpose, cause or mission) before it empowers its people. This both unifies and enables people to take initiative and action that helps to advance the organization's "Why". As long as leaders have done a great job of bringing people into the organization that believe passionately in the same "Why" and have constantly reinforced it with them at every opportunity, then the leaders should feel confident that everyone around them will act in unity with that "Why".

Of course, people leaders should clarify the "How" and "What" as well, but only in general terms, not in hundreds and thousands and policies, procedures, do's and don'ts. "How's" are just strategies and core values and "What's" are just the physical outcomes and measures of success. But most importantly they should all be aligned with and stem from the "Why". It's only when we have real and positive impact and find fulfillment for ourselves, our organizations, the people they serve and the people that work in them.

Train and Grow

Building skills of every kind in your team is critical. Part of what made General McCrystal and his group so successful is that his team members at every level were the most highly trained, skilled and equipped soldiers in history! This enabled him to more fully empower since he knew his teams and team members were the best trained in the world.

Dave Marquet wrote a book called Turn the Ship Around where he tells the story of taking over the worst performing submarine in the US Navy fleet and turning into the best through empowering his team. He points out that the two critical components that enable successful empowerment versus sheer chaos are clarity and competence. Clarity basically has to do with the "Why" I described above and competence meaning the skill and training of the team members. Marquet worked tirelessly with his leadership team to turn their organization into an learning organization. Every people structural change they made, they did through the lens of growing skill ability and knowledge of every team member. For example, he changed briefings that were passive and required no participation from the crew, into drills where team members had to come prepared to describe and demonstrate their role in a future planned operation. It worked beautifully to encourage individual ownership in growing ones skills. After this change, Marquet rarely would see crew members in their living quarters playing video games and wasting time, which used to be common place. Instead he would see much more often, the crew studying, quizzing each other and supporting each others' growth.

Push the Power Down

Now its time to give up control. That's how Marquet even started on his journey with his new submarine crew. He basically stopped giving orders. What!?! I thought that's what the military is all about? It is, mostly. And he had a lost to risk. A court marshal and getting thrown in jail or even people dying. It's not that he didn't take those things seriously, he just realized he couldn't do it alone. Having a crew of 170 active, engaged, passionate thinkers was way more powerful than 1. So instead he put the power in his teams' hands and he coached and guided them along and made sure to be constantly building up their clarity of the mission and culture and skills.

And Make Sure its Safe

And just as importantly as clarity, competence and handing over control is making sure to be explicit about safety. If this is new for your organization, people are going to flounder, be trigger shy, and down right fail. Make sure, to patiently, regularly, affirming say "its ok". You as the leader, have to make it safe. Make those mishaps a learning opportunity.

Moving on to Part 3

Part 3 is coming next week and it will be about showing care and concern for your team, or what I'm calling love and empathy.

Thanks for reading!


Devin Craig



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