Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute

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Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute tells the story of a young manager whose attempts to turn his troubled company around through traditional top-down, command-and-control management are failing. Reluctantly, he contacts an expert in empowerment, even though he feels like he's already tried that too. Step by step, the expert helps him understand why his past and present efforts have fallen short and exactly what he needs to do to create an empowered workforce. The process as it unfolds is complex, paradoxical and counterintuitive -but well worth the effort. The new introduction dispels the notion that empowerment is a bygone fad. No matter what its name, the essential concept-that organizations can achieve extraordinary results by recognizing and taking advantage of the skills, experience, and knowledge already existing in the organization-will always be relevant. The new epilogue describes obstacles companies have encountered and overcome and outlines empowerment strategies that have proved successful during the fifteen years the authors have been consulting, researching, and refining these concepts. Although sometimes arduous, the journey to empowerment is well worth making. In fact, unleashing the power of people in an organization may be the only way to continue to do business in a competitive, complicated marketplace.

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The Challenge


THE RAIN beat down steadily. Occasionally the wind threw great splashes against the executive office windows. The sound brought a smile to Michael Hobbs’s face. It made him reflect on the beating he was taking as president and CEO of a midsize, once-successful, home products company.

Michael had taken over leadership a little over a year ago, and he had instinctively done his usual thing—seize the checkbook and centralize all decision making. He had developed quite a reputation since his MBA program as a dynamic, high-energy manager. His belief was that lack of leadership at the top was usually the cause of a company’s problems. As a hands-on manager, it didn’t take him long to address that void. He was decisive and in charge, but for some reason his approach was not working this time.

Another sheet of rain blasted the office windows, rousing Michael from his trance. He looked up at the sign on his desk given to him by the consultant his board had recommended he should hire. The sign was really starting to bother him, but he didn’t have the nerve to take it down. It read:


The Empowering Manager


MICHAEL happened to notice an article sitting on his desk. The title caught his attention: “Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute.” In spite of his recent skepticism, this title intrigued him and he started reading the article. The author insisted that empowerment works, but it takes courage and time to get there. The article stated that you can’t tell people to act empowered and expect them to just do it— exactly what he had done six months ago. If they have little or no past experience or involvement in decision making, they won’t know what to do. They may talk like they want to make more decisions about their work, but they will not be comfortable with the downside risk of responsibility.

Citing an example of one company’s success in empowering its people, the article went on to rave about the turnaround of a communications hardware company that had been caught napping by the advent of the exploding communications technology demands. The manager, some guy named Sandy Fitzwilliam, was credited with having an incredibly motivated staff who acted as if they owned the company. In fact, the article referred to Fitzwilliam as “the Empowering Manager.”


The Land Of Empowerment


“YOU CAN go right in,” smiled the woman at the desk outside Sandy Fitzwilliam’s office. Michael found the Empowering Manager standing by the window looking out. She turned and greeted him with a firm handshake. “I’m Sandy Fitzwilliam. Nice to meet you.”

“Thank you for taking time to see me,” Michael began.

“Don’t get too excited until you find out whether or not I can help you. Do you recall what I said as we hung up last week?” Sandy asked seriously.

Michael thought for a minute. “Frankly, no.”

“I told you that you were starting a journey.”

“Oh, yes,” said Michael. “Something about a journey to the Land of Empowerment. Sounds more like a ride at Disney World than anything else. I honestly don’t know what you mean by it.”

“It’s not a fantasyland,” she clarified. “It’s real.

What do you think it might mean?”

“Well,” said Michael, letting his mind roam, “the word journey suggests that it might take some time to get there.”

Sandy nodded.

Encouraged, Michael went on. “It also conjures up tales of adventure, where one follows roads that lead over steep mountains and through dark forests. Unexpected things happen. There are lots of tests along the way. Something like that.”


The First Key: Share Accurat Einformation with everyone


ASHORT TIME later, Michael found his way to the billing response center that served the company’s larger customers. Robert had suggested they meet there to get a firsthand look at the operation.

Michael was surprised that it appeared to be a fairly standard-looking operation, with the same kind of computers his own company used. The people even looked the same, except perhaps a little more engaged but also relaxed—almost like they were having fun. But at this point he didn’t know what to expect, so he decided to just try to take it all in and learn. That was why he was there, after all.

A young man approached him. “Hi, I’m Robert Borders. You must be the executive Amelia called me about. What can I do for you?”

“I just finished talking with Sandy Fitzwilliam, and now I need to talk with some people in your company about empowerment. But even though empowering people is my goal, I’m skeptical. I’ve tried to institute empowerment with my company, and, frankly, I haven’t seen much change. But I’m beginning to think we may have gone about it incorrectly—maybe I don’t even know what real empowerment is, much less how to create a culture of empowerment.”


The Second Key: Create Autonomy through Boundaries


THE NEXT morning Michael was back bright and early. As he entered the Inventory Processing Area, a woman approached him and introduced herself as Janet Wo.

“I understand you’ve been hanging out with some of my colleagues—Sandy Fitzwilliam and Robert Borders,” said Janet. “This stuff about empowering people can be pretty confusing at first. Remembering how it was for me, I imagine your head is spinning.”

“Well, you’re right,” said Michael. “I was surprised to learn how sharing information works to establish trust and help people improve their work processes. But I can’t imagine that information alone can be enough. What comes next?”

“To answer that question, let me ask you to consider things from the viewpoint of management. In order for people to be empowered, do you think they need more structure or less?”

“Why, less structure, of course. To empower people, you want to free them up, not restrict them with rules.”

“OK,” Janet replied in a noncommittal way. “Now, think about where people are when you embark on the journey to the Land of Empowerment. They’ve heard about empowerment. Most of them probably want to be empowered. But what’s their total experience of what it means to be empowered? Do they really understand what it means to be allowed to use their experience and knowledge but at the same time to be held fully accountable for the results, whether good or bad?”


The Third Key: Replace Hierarchical Thinking with Self-managed Teams


MICHAEL SAW Billy Abrams hurrying toward him as he entered the Customer Service work area. Right away he sensed Billy was a high-energy person like himself—not much on talk and a pragmatist when it came to ideas.

As Billy led Michael through the work area, Michael said, “I sense you’re a busy man, and I want to thank you for taking the time to meet with me. As you may know, I’m here to learn the third key to empowerment.”

“No problem,” said Billy, as if dismissing his last statement. “Tell me, did your company recently go through downsizing?”

“Yes, we did,” answered Michael. “It’s tough being responsible for eliminating jobs.”

“I know what you mean. The same thing happened in this company.”

“But in retrospect, it was absolutely necessary,” Michael quickly added, “to survive and thrive as an organization. To be responsive to customers, we needed a company with as few management layers as possible. But I realize now that while downsizing may create a need for empowerment, it is not anything like empowerment at all. And empowerment is certainly a lot more than authorizing people to make more decisions, which is what I used to think.”


The Three Keys in Dynamic Interaction


AS MICHAEL walked into Sandy’s office, he found her in a familiar pose, staring out the window. As she turned to greet him, he jumped right into his question, “So far, I’ve learned three keys to empowerment. They sound good, but do they work? Do they make a difference in performance or results?”

She responded, “Slow down a minute, and tell me what you’ve learned.”

“OK. I’ve learned that there are three keys to empowerment that are part of a process for releasing the potential that is within people.”

Michael showed her his summary notes (see next page):

After Sandy read his notes, Michael started talking excitedly again, continually referring to his cards and notes. For twenty minutes, he talked without letting her say a word. She sat back in her chair and listened intently.

When Michael finished, he was a bit out of breath. He looked at the Empowering Manager and waited for her to say something. Finally she spoke. “It’s evident to me that you understand the steps for creating an empowered organization. You get an A for your solid grasp of the main ideas.”


Give Everyone the Information to Act


MICHAEL ARRIVED early the next morning, hoping that Elizabeth could show him more about how empowerment worked and that it really gets results.

As he reached the Fulfillment Area, Michael was greeted by a tall, energetic woman. “Hi. I’m Elizabeth Meadows, and this is the area my associates and I own.”

“What do you mean, you own it?” Michael asked.

“I mean,” smiled Elizabeth, “we have all the information we need to make any important decision that has to be made to serve our customers, ensure quality of the products we sell, and make a profit for our company.”

“Maybe that explains what happened when I was walking down here to meet you this morning,” Michael said. “I overheard one of the fulfillment people telling someone on the phone that the missing items would be replaced at no cost and sent overnight to arrive tomorrow. Frankly, I was amazed. People in fulfillment don’t usually have the authority to make that kind of decision.”

Elizabeth, who had been peering at Michael as she listened, said, “Right. But people in fulfillment who have information can take on the responsibility for that kind of decision and know that it won’t hurt the company. In fact, with information they would know just what dividends such excellent customer service will pay in the future. They can weigh the cost against the benefit of replacing the item at no cost.”


Boundaries are Guidelines for Action


AS THEY strolled along, Elizabeth began to explain how various kinds of structure take on a new meaning in an empowered organization.

“Once people have the information to understand their current situation, boundaries don’t seem like constraints but rather guidelines for action. Within our agreed-on boundaries, we have complete autonomy and responsibility to get things done. Take roles and goals, for example. I’m sure Janet Wo talked to you about developing the big picture into little pictures.”

“Yes, she did.”

“That’s important to us, because when it comes to defining roles and goals, our process is like a two-way street. Management and informed people throughout the organization (that is, all of us) work together to develop the big picture, as well as our little pictures. When the vision is clear, everyone knows where their job and their work on individual tasks fits into a bigger perspective.”

“Can you give me an example?” asked Michael.

“Have you ever returned to the store a pair of shoes you have worn, and only then discovered they made your feet hurt? The store clerk tells you the best the store can do is give you a store credit for the current price of the shoes, which are now on sale?”


Allow Teams to Become Self-managed


MICHAEL WAS excited to meet with Luis Gomez and learn more about self-managed teams. Luis greeted him with a firm handshake.

Luis began, “So it’s my job to show you more about how teams become the hierarchy. Actually, that’s my favorite subject. Probably the fact that I’m team leader this quarter has something to do with it.”

“Did top management give you some rules that govern your team’s operation?” asked Michael.

“We operate with very few rules from the top,” Luis answered. “In fact, we have only four basic rules, and these were actually developed with all employees involved in a process led by Sandy and her management team. The four rules that guide all our actions are

“But,” Michael said, “I’ve just finished learning from Elizabeth that new rules and boundaries are essential for getting to empowerment.”

“That’s right, but they’re essential mainly at the beginning of the process,” Luis said. “We’ve come a long way on our journey to get where we are today. We started with a lot of external structure and rules. But now those rules come from within our team. Let me tell you how that happened.”


Persist in Your Belief in Empowerment


AS MICHAEL walked back to Sandy’s office he was feeling good about all he had learned. It seemed like a long time ago when he had been dragging his feet.

“Well, are you ready to go?” Sandy smiled as she greeted him.

“I think so. Your associates have been very helpful, and I’ve learned a great deal about empowerment. Implementing the three keys sounds like quite a challenge but also a great gift to everyone in our company. I hope we can make it work for us.”

“There is no doubt that you will need persistence in your belief that empowerment will work.”

“Particularly with the last key—replacing hierarchical thinking with self-managed teams,” said Michael. “Information sharing got me at first, but the role of teams seems even tougher.”

“That’s the part that always makes managers doubt the whole process,” Sandy replied.

“When the inevitable confusion and dissatisfaction stage of the journey sets in, it must seem so out of control,” Michael said in a pained tone.

“Yes! Know why?” Sandy asked. “Because if you are going to be held accountable, you want to be in control.”


The Empowerment Game Plan



The Empowerment Game Plan


Start with—

Share Accurate Information with Everyone

Over the next few months, Michael and his company traveled along their own unique journey toward the Land of Empowerment. At first, he made periodic calls to Sandy Fitzwilliam for advice and feedback. Over time, however, as his confidence grew, he and his associates became engaged in their own process of developing an empowered organization. Despite setbacks and some times when they all wanted to just give up, they persisted. By Michael’s knowing and sharing with everyone that such hard times and reactions were to be expected, they were able to stick to the task and continue to use the three keys to move through all the stages of change and associated difficulties. Eventually they achieved their goal of creating an empowered organization where everyone could use and develop talents that both engaged them and achieved astonishing results for the organization.

Just as Sandy had acted as a guide for Michael, he found himself counseling other executives who were moving through their own journeys. Again and again he heard himself say,



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