How to Lead an Empowered Workforce Part 1

I was sitting in an office in another skyscraper in another city talking to another leader about empowering her team. This is a common scene in my life and one that I love, the work of helping leaders become the best they can possibly be. This scene sticks in my mind because the leader looked at me and said something like this:

“Ok, I’ve been doing what you said. For the last 5 months, I have evaluated every decision and tried to push it to the lowest possible level so that those closest to the work can make the decision. I’ve been delegating and organizing and cutting or shortening my meetings and I’ve freed up a lot of time. But now I’m struggling a little as I’m not sure what my job is. If I’m not making the decisions, going to non-stop meetings and doing and checking the work myself, what do I do?”

This was an honest question from a talented, intelligent woman but it did cross my mind that “a man would never say that.” They might think it, but they would never say it out loud. And there is good reason not to voice such a question, as if a frugal business owner, CEO or line leader heard it, they would probably wonder why they needed you in the job. So, to save jobs everywhere, let me answer the question.

Why an Empowered Workforce is Required

Before we get into the leader’s role in an empowered workforce, let’s take time to understand why empowerment is needed. Most leaders have heard it and many even say they do it, but when we go into companies and examine leadership in practice, we find very few organizations that truly empower their workforce. Leaders like to make decisions. That gives them power and power is intoxicating. In fact, leadership can be addictive and the higher the stakes, the more addictive it is. Leaders who are high-stakes decision makers live on adrenaline and running an empowered workforce is not going to give the same endorphins as being the “buck stops here” leader. However, the workforce is changing, customers are changing, and practically the whole world is changing, and leadership doesn’t get a pass.

Here’s why. I live in Kansas City. We have a wonderful shopping area called the Country Club Plaza. If I go to the Plaza to buy a purse, I will go in a store, choose a purse and go up to the counter. When I get to the counter, I will ask if there are any discounts or sales that apply to the purse. If the clerk says no, I will take a minute to pull up my smart phone and do a quick Google search on the purse. If I find it for a lower price, I will show it to the clerk and ask if the store can match the price (with an adjustment for shipping). At that moment, the clock starts ticking and the clerk has maybe 2 minutes to decide whether to give me a discount on the purse. If the clerk can’t answer or will have to get back to me, I am very likely to buy the purse from the online vendor while standing in the current store’s expensive Plaza real estate. Technology is one of the main reasons an empowered workforce is required. The other reason is that the Millennials are not accepting business as usual from a leadership standpoint. They want a voice in the decisions, the ability to make decisions and continuous feedback about how they are doing. And, yes, it does matter what they want because they are a massive group and will, in fact, be 75% of the workforce by 2025. So if you aren’t paying attention to what the Millennials want, you may not be competitive for the best talent.

What does it Look Like?

The question then turns to what does it look like in action? Empowering the workforce is not only a workforce process shift, it is also a mental shift. Leaders must move from information is power to information is a resource. Empowerment means that employees at all levels have designated authority to make decisions and act within a specific boundary. The Ritz Carlton for example is a hotel brand that is known for it’s customer service. I’m not sure what the amount is today but at least in the past, they empowered their employees to be able to make decisions to take care of the customer in the amount of up to $200.00 per day. So if I am at the Ritz and drop a Christmas ornament while shopping in the gift shop, the clerk can decide right there whether or not to waive the fee. The doorman may hear me say that I am starving but my wallet was stolen and decide to go work with the kitchen to ensure I have a plate of cheese and crackers and a glass of wine to calm my stomach and soothe my nerves after my bad day. That is empowerment. The employees know they have authority and can use their critical thinking skills to make the call.

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