EQUIP THEM TO SUCCEED, NOT TO FAIL
Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.
ARE YOU EQUIPPING YOUR PEOPLE to succeed or setting them up to fail? Don’t align their hearts and minds with winning if you’re not willing to provide them with the knowledge, skills, resources, and authority to make it happen.
Consider this: If I give you a sense of purpose but not the resources to fulfill it, how will you feel? Frustrated. If I provide you with skills but not the authority to apply them, what will you think? That I don’t trust you. And if I give you authority without the knowledge and skills to use that authority wisely, what kind of decisions will you make? Bad ones.
Once you’ve got your team pointed in the right direction, now you have to equip them.
WITHOUT KNOW-WHAT AND KNOW-HOW, THERE’S NO WAY
Let’s say your strategy is to provide an impeccable customer experience. Do your people know what that looks like? Do they know how to deliver it? Do you constantly discuss it? Do you role-model it? Do you embody it with ruthless consistency? Here’s an example of what it looks like when you do:
We arrived in Cusco, Peru, the historic capital of the Incan empire. Our intent was to explore the city for a few days before going on a five-day trek to Machu Picchu. We decided to stay at the Hotel Torre Dorada, a modestly priced boutique hotel with exceptional ratings and a reputation for extraordinary service. Of course, I was intrigued—would the service live up to the reputation?
Our first touchpoint was Martin, the hotel’s shuttle driver, who greeted us at the airport as if we were old friends. He was a fountain of helpful information, anticipating our various needs regarding meals, transport, and how to cope with the effects of altitude (Cusco is at an elevation of 11,200 feet). The goal of everyone in the hotel, he added, was that our total experience in Cusco would be fantastic.
When we arrived at the hotel, Monika, the front desk attendant, greeted us by name. She was beaming, and happily went above-and-beyond to fulfill our requests. The following morning, we met the breakfast staff, who could only be described as joyful. Hmmm, was that the secret to the remarkably tasty omelets?
On our final day I had a chance to speak with Peggy, the engaging and spirited proprietor. I asked how her staff was able to provide such consistently first-rate service. “Hard work,” she 126said with a wry smile. “We discuss it all the time. I ask my staff to imagine how it would feel if they were in another country, another culture. How would they want to be treated? What would make them feel comforted? Well taken care of? It’s important that my staff know what our standards are and how to take care of our guests. And that I show them, so they know what to do.”
Then she happened to look down at my coffee cup. “Oh no,” she said, and immediately stepped aside to make a phone call. I looked down at the cup and noticed a tiny chip. Two minutes later a woman arrived, the head of housekeeping.
“This cup has a small chip in the rim,” Peggy pointed out. “Could you please replace it? We can’t have that for our guests.”
The woman nodded, smiled, and went to replace the cup.
“As I was saying, hard work! Every detail has to be just right.”
THE MAGIC OF MICRO-TRAINING
Do your people get the training they need to execute your SCIs? If not, why not? One likely reason is time. Developing people takes time, and how do you find the time when everyone is already maxed out?
Here’s a solution we’ve found to be very effective: Micro-training. Twenty-minute, single-topic modules. One process, one concept, one model, or one practice. Yes, it’s hard to get people away from the office, out of the plant, or off the road for a full day. But you can often pull them aside for 20 minutes.
There are three keys to an effective Micro-training module:
1. Present the single topic. Keep it simple; keep it focused. Use real-world examples whenever possible. Use support media—videos, images, charts, and checklists—to bring the topic to life. If the single topic is a behavioral skill, then explain it and role-model it.
2. Have them process it. Give people an opportunity to process what you’ve conveyed. Have them form groups of two or three and give them one or two questions to answer such as: “What do you like most about this concept?” “How could you apply this in your job?” Again, if the single topic is a behavioral skill, have them role-play it, not just talk about it. Bring everyone back together for a quick debrief. Draw conclusions, answer questions, and summarize the single topic.
3. Give them a takeaway. Give them a handout, weblink, resource, or something else they can refer to and that you can refer to with them. This helps to cement the Micro-training.
Micro-training has several advantages over conventional training. First, individual modules don’t take a lot of time. As a result, there’s minimal disruption to your day-to-day operations. Second, because the focus is limited to a single topic, people are more likely to retain and apply what they’ve learned. Third, when done regularly—every couple of weeks, for example—you can build a lot of know-what and know-how over time.
DON’T JUST TRAIN; DEVELOP
Don’t just think “training”; think “development.” Training is important, but training is just one of many ways to develop your people, and depending on the knowledge or skills required, it may not be the best way.
You can also develop people through coaching, mentoring, job shadowing, peer advisory groups, books, articles, videos, webinars, seminars, podcasts, vodcasts . . . there are more ways than ever to develop people. Don’t simply default to training. Ask yourself, “What is the most effective way to impart the knowledge and develop the skills that each person needs?”
Keep in mind that you may want to develop more than just job-specific skills. Depending on the person’s role, you may want to develop interpersonal skills, self-management skills, product knowledge, industry knowledge, or overall business knowledge. The question is, what knowledge and skills do your people need to perform at their best?
WHAT’S YOUR RETURN ON DEVELOPMENT?
Another reason why companies don’t do more to develop their people is cost. While there is clearly a cost of developing people, you should also consider the cost of not developing people.
Whenever you discuss cost—better thought of as investment in the case of people development—you also need to consider the return. Ask, “What is the return we’re getting on developing our people, and how would we know?”
You would know by systematically evaluating it. As a framework, I like Donald Kirkpatrick’s Four-Level Model of Evaluation: (1) reaction, (2) learning, (3) behavior, and (4) results.1
Imagine you’ve got a manager who does a poor job of providing performance-related feedback as evidenced by his employee survey ratings. Together you decide that, to improve, he’ll spend a day shadowing another manager who rates highly in providing performance-related feedback. He also commits to watching an online video showing the steps and techniques of providing effective feedback.
After he’s done both, you might get his reaction by asking what he thought about his shadowing day as well as the video. To determine what he learned, you might ask him to tell you or show you what he recalls. So far, so good, but until it’s applied it’s all just theory.
The next step is to observe the manager’s behavior or ask employees if they’ve observed changes in the manager’s behavior. Finally, as a measure of results, you could conduct a follow-up survey to see if the manager’s ratings improve. Do his employees feel he now does a better job of providing performance-related feedback?
Progressing through the four levels of evaluation provides increasingly strong evidence for the effectiveness of developmental activities. While it takes time and effort to evaluate all four levels, you’ll be far better equipped to answer the question, “What is the return we’re getting on developing our people, and how would we know?”
DON’T DO MORE WITH LESS; DO LESS WITH MORE
“Do more with less.” It’s one of those mantras that we assume every leader should embrace. And why not? Doing more with less means greater efficiency and productivity. Yet the unintended consequence of doing more with less is that we often under-resource SCIs, increasing the likelihood they will fail.
Which resource are you most likely to shortchange? When you ask employees, they’ll often say, “time.” They want to do a good job, they want to meet expectations, but they simply don’t have the time. So what happens? They cut corners, things fall through the cracks, and doing the bare minimum becomes the standard. For many well-intended employees, the game is no longer about doing a first-rate job; it’s about trying to keep all the plates spinning. That’s frustrating for people who hold themselves to a high standard, who want to excel, and who are committed to success. They start to resent you because you’re the author of their circumstance.
Of course, a shortage of time may be symptomatic of not having enough people. I’ve had to convince more than a few mid-market company CEOs that hiring an executive assistant was a worthwhile investment, that their time was better spent driving and supporting strategic change than sending out meeting invites and arranging travel plans. Finally, after hiring an executive assistant and then looking back, all of them said the same thing, “What was I thinking?!”
Don’t do more with less; do less with more. That doesn’t mean throwing resources at people or people at projects. It means concentrating sufficient people and resources on the critical few SCIs that absolutely must get implemented. If you’re mounting an expedition to climb Mt. Everest, you’ll need more than two people in T-shirts and flip-flops.
To be fair, it’s not always easy to know how much is sufficient. Sometimes a lack of resources forces people to be resourceful. That was the case in the 1990s when NASA was planning the Pathfinder mission to conduct scientific experiments on the surface of Mars. As a result of severe budget constraints, a key objective was to complete the mission at one-fifteenth the (adjusted dollar) cost of previous Mars missions. This serious constraint spurred a number of innovations, the most famous being the use of airbags for the landing module. The idea was to “drop” the landing module to the planet’s surface instead of relying exclusively on costly retrorockets. Once it hit the planet’s surface, the well-cushioned module would bounce up and down (over 15 times at a height of up to 50 feet, as it turned out) before coming to rest. At that point, the airbags would deflate and retract, allowing the exploratory vehicle to exit the landing module and begin the scientific part of the mission.
Yes, you should challenge your people to be resourceful and to innovate. But don’t use that as an excuse to under-resource what must get done. Do less with more.
THE DARK SIDE OF EMPOWERMENT
“I don’t like to micromanage,” says the leader. “I like to give my people the freedom they need to make decisions and take action.”
It’s now well accepted that for your people to have a sense of fulfillment and to perform at their best, you need to empower them. Right?
There’s more to it than that. Empowerment on its own is no panacea. It’s just one element—yes, a very important one—in an environment designed for performance and results. But empowerment without direction leads to chaos. Empowerment without resources leads to frustration. Empowerment without knowl132edge leads to poor decisions. Empowerment without skills leads to well-intended failures. If all you do is empower your people, then you’re setting them up to fail.
The dark side of empowerment is that it provides a ready-made excuse for managers who are lazy, who have fooled themselves into thinking that management no longer involves managing. Then, when things don’t work out, they can simply blame their so-called empowered employees. If you say you’re empowering your people yet do nothing to support them, then your people won’t feel empowered; they’ll feel abandoned. Set up to fail by a manager who lacks the understanding or discipline to know the difference.
LEVELS OF AUTHORITY
Many leaders mistakenly think of empowerment as all-or-none. “Our employees are empowered,” they announce, as if it applies without limits in all situations. Is it any surprise then that employees believe they can make decisions and take action as they see fit? Once leaders belatedly realize and communicate there are limits, then those same employees feel betrayed and become cynical about their so-called empowerment.
You don’t want your people empowered to make every decision in every situation or to take whatever action whenever. There are limits, and there should be. The question is, what level of authority should your people have in which situations? The authority to recommend? To decide? To act? And within what financial or operational limits? You might want a frontline manager to have discretionary spending authority of up to $500 but not $500,000. You might want a regional manager to provide recommendations about company policy but not to decide company policy.
There are also times for autocratic decision-making, when you and you alone should decide. I’ve seen leaders allow themselves to be held hostage by consensus—the idea that everyone has to agree. Well, if everyone has to agree, then anyone has the power to veto. Yes, you may want input from your team and even feedback on your preferred course of action, but there are times when your people simply want you to decide, and you should be the one to decide.
It’s not about empowerment. It’s about what level of authority people should have in which situations.
WHY PEOPLE DON’T WANT TO HAVE AUTHORITY
In general, people want the authority required to be successful in their jobs. They don’t want to be powerless pawns. Yet don’t assume that people necessarily want more authority. Have you ever encouraged people to make decisions and take action, but they won’t? Why not? It could be that the disincentives associated with having authority outweigh the incentives. If they’ve been punished in the past for making mistakes, then why would they take initiative and risk getting punished again? The fear of retribution is a major reason why people don’t want to use the authority they’ve been granted. Another reason is the fear of looking bad. Making a decision or taking action could result in a mistake. Others would judge them and might think they’re incompetent or dumb. Safer to lie low and not be judged.
This was exactly the case at Talking Rain, a beverage company. Incoming CEO Chris Hall wanted to create a culture of urgency. To accomplish this, he needed to push decision-making authority down the org chart to those who best understood the relevant issues. Yet people resisted. Why? “Previously,” said Hall, “bad decisions led to people getting embarrassed or even fired. Understandably, they wanted to protect themselves and push decision-making back up the ladder.” Clearly, the environment was misaligned.
Hall took steps to realign the environment so that people would want to exercise authority and make decisions. He repeatedly communicated the importance of urgency and making quick decisions. He made sure that team members had access to the necessary data and analytics so they were equipped to make good decisions. To reinforce people who used the authority to make decisions, he sent them individual recognition notes. And most importantly, when people made decisions that didn’t turn out well, the decisions and outcomes were positioned as learning opportunities, not reasons for punishment.
Make it safe for team members to make appropriate decisions and to take action. Equip them so they can make well-informed decisions and take well-conceived actions. Then, if they do make a mistake, reinforce them for taking initiative. Encourage them to learn and grow by asking two questions:
1. What have you learned?
2. What would you do differently next time?
Let your team know that mistakes provide improvement opportunities. Make the most of your mistakes.
AGAIN, THE SECOND PRINCIPLE: IT’S WHAT YOUR PEOPLE EXPERIENCE
You could train and develop the members of your team. You could provide them with the necessary resources. You could give them the authority to make decisions and take action. But you won’t be successful unless they believe they’re equipped with the knowledge, skills, resources, and authority to make it happen.
What you do is not as important as what they experience. Continually check in with them. Verify that their experience aligns with your intentions.
• Provide your people with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful. Consider Micro-training.
• Don’t just think “training”; think “development.” Ask, “What is the most effective way to impart the knowledge and develop the skills that are necessary?”
• Evaluate return on development using Kirkpatrick’s Four-Level Model of Evaluation.
• Concentrate sufficient people and resources on the critical few SCIs that absolutely must get implemented.
• Don’t use “empowerment” as an excuse for abandonment.
• Make it safe for people to use the authority you give them.
• Validate everything you do from the perspective of your people.