EMPOWERMENT - The Fuel That Drives Execution
Updated: Jan 20
Published on November 30, 2016
How could a word with such positive beginnings turn into something that strikes fear in the hearts of anyone in an organization responsible for getting things done? Early application of the term was based in the civil rights and social equality movements, later adopted by the human resource community. By the late 80’s the word went mainstream in the hallowed halls of business and became the buzzword to describe a wide range of responsibilities and behaviors. The popularity of the expression seemed to parallel the rising trend of quality initiatives. The methodology proposes the organization functions in support of the customer rather than the customer supporting the traditional structure of an organization. Simply put, the focus shifts from top-down to bottom-up. Unfortunately, in a high percentage of situations, the concept of turning the traditional organizational structure upside-down was only partially actioned creating an hourglass effect in the business. The corporate pyramid stopped inverting and split somewhere between the executives and the customers. Fundamentally, the quality structure is sound so why did this happen? One hypothesis is this; As designed, the customer began to expect the company was listening to and would act upon their needs; The frontline of the business was charged with fulfilling those needs; Management’s role became supporting the frontline in delivering the results; Hence, the executive level became responsible for turning needs (shareholder and customer) into strategy. When TQM initiatives went off the rails it was largely the result of management and executives becoming frozen by the fear of relinquishing autonomy. It created a bottleneck where the frontline became advocates for the customer (bottom-up) and management remained in the implementation role for the C-Suite (top-down). The fact is it’s natural for the frontline to not grasp the resources required to steer in a new direction. Conversely, the top can be quick to sacrifice potential and productivity for immediate profitability. Typical conflict is created. At the end of a fiscal year, how often have we given or received the directive to increase productivity while, at the same time, reduce expenses, research, advertising, promotions, marketing, etc? The desired outcomes are diametrically opposed. In the process of looking for solutions to this conundrum, empowerment has gotten a bad rap. It’s become the default escape clause for a wide range of dysfunction including bad data, defective strategies, poor execution and compressive leadership. It’s too easy to proclaim, “The frontline didn’t execute effectively” rather than look at process up and down the organization. As we discussed in the previous article, execution failures can be directly associated with the lack of engagement and education. When those two steps are actioned, empowerment is where the fuel for driving execution comes from. Think about it like the game of football. On game day when the players step onto the field, everyone knows the positions they’ll play and what successful performance looks like. They know the things they can and can’t do. The refs have defined the field boundaries and the players know what to expect from their team and coaches. Whether it be on the field or in the conference room, there are the three key components that must be fleshed out for contributors to develop and possess strong empowerment. The first step toward empowerment is to DEFINE THE CRITICAL MEASURES. This can be done by simply asking the question, “What do I need to do to be successful?” The answer allows us to understand the actions or behaviors that are highly predictive of achievement. All too often the measures are confused with the goal itself. For example, if running a marathon is your goal, you don’t just wake up one day and succeed at running 26.2 miles. There are critical measures that, when actioned, make finishing a marathon highly probable. Those measures would include starting at a specific weekly mileage including one long run and increasing your distance to a level that allows you to peak at the right time. In this scenario, the critical measure is running a specific number of miles each week. Now let’s look at how it could apply to business. Let’s say that you’re a commercial real estate developer and you know that 1 out of every 5 center tours results in a signed lease. Assume your goal is to have 20 signed leases before fiscal year end. That means 100 tours must be facilitated to achieve the goal. To truly understand how to make that happen, you’ll need to drill down to what activity results in a booked tour. If the impetus was a portfolio mailing followed by a phone call, the question becomes, how many did it take to get 1 tour? If it took 25, your critical measure becomes finding, mailing and calling 500 targets. Without understanding the actions and behaviors that lead to successful execution, the ability to duplicate it disappears. The best practice is to keep peeling the onion, till you get to the core of what drives success! Once the actions are identified, the next step is to DEFINE THE PLAYING FIELD by clarifying the range of autonomy and independence those executing a strategy possess. The clarifying question for this step is “What are the rules?” If a change of course or new opportunity is presented, how much flexibility can be exhibited? Using the football analogy, if a quarterback gets the play from the sideline and sees the defense is set to stop it, he may call an audible play on the field. In business, we run audible plays every day and depending on the situation, they might be inside the lines or out of bounds. The key to successfully going off script is to know where the lines are and avoid stepping outside them since most are based on law, profitability, brand equity or ethics. The old adage that “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission” is a great inspirational axiom, however, having awareness of the hard boundaries is critical to protecting all stakeholder interests. With the rules and actions clearly in view, here is where leadership plays a vital role to ESTABLISH COMMITMENT AND SUPPORT. It’s accomplished by confirming and separating the must-do from the good-to-do while supporting people in the elimination or reduction of non-productive activities. There are many business acronyms for top priorities including KPIs (Key Performance Indicators),WIGs (Wildly Important Goals) and my favorite BAGs (you can figure it out). The idea that by simply identifying the top goals, the focus of the organization will organically move in that direction, is flawed. In the next Four E installment on the topic of execution, we will explore the concept of “What get’s measured, get’s done”. The truth is, before tracking has any impact, contributors will analyze any new objective against their own reality. How much do I have on my plate? It’s not uncommon for an individual, team or organization to perceive all responsibilities to be priority. Just query someone who has never submitted a late expense report. The apocalypse wouldn’t conflict with their routine. Sometimes we just need to give people permission to NOT do everything and confirm that there is NOTHING more important than actioning the critical measures of the BAGs. As a leader, exuding support, even in face of failure, is the role that will reduce fear and inspire people to drive through walls in pursuit of an objective. This also fosters a sense of ownership and freedom that keeps the traditionally slow and lethargic decision-making ladder from getting in the way of achievement. In the end, infusing any strategy with informed, empowered people, prior to action, puts confident hearts and minds in the game with the focus on what matters most.