Creating Empowered Employees

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The great American poet Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” In military parlance, we say, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Whether it’s boxing, combat operations or business, it’s imperative to have a plan. It’s equally imperative to have a culture where your followers know your intent as a leader so they can execute your vision in the absence of direct supervision.

In the military, it’s called “Commander’s Intent” and the US Army defines it as “succinctly describing what constitutes suc­cess for the operation including the operation’s purpose, key tasks, and the conditions that define the end state.” (Source: Army Doctrine Reference Publication 5-0). In other words, a great leader defines what success looks like for his or her subordinates. S/he includes in that vision the overall purpose of the endeavor and some of the key steps that will ensure success. Commander’s Intent also fully recognizes that employees won’t have all the information they need to make perfect decisions – and that’s ok.

Combat Example    

A good example from my Air Force flying days came during the war in Kosovo. You may recall there were hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees in Albania and it was our job (along with many others) to deter those that wanted to do them harm. The first night of the war, I flew the first of five C-17cargo jets delivering equipment (rockets, tanks, armored personnel carriers, etc.) to the troops on the ground in Albania. We had set plans for how to navigate hostile forces, but they became obsolete by the time we were halfway to our destination.

The AWACS airborne surveillance plane had seen enemy fighter jets in the area and there were also enemy personnel on the ground with surface-to-air missiles. In addition, there were major thunderstorms between us and the landing zone. Finally, air traffic control communications were limited. Under normal circumstances, we would avoid any area with people trying to kill us, thunderstorms, and sketchy communications that could lead to a mid-air collision. These, however, were not normal circumstances. We had thousands of pages of procedures, but none addressed these conditions. What we did have, though, was a clear understanding from our commanders regarding what we needed to accomplish for the mission to be a success. We absolutely needed to get that equipment on the ground to protect the refugees.

To make the long story short, my copilot and I used information from the AWACS and other intelligence to successfully avoid the enemy fighters and surface-to-air missile threats.   Using our weather radar (since it was at night), we picked our way through the thunderstorms and worked all 6 of the airplane’s radios to coordinate with any other plane that might inadvertently crash into us. Ultimately, we delivered our supplies and were able to provide somewhat of a roadmap for the jets that followed us into the area. We were able to accomplish the mission because we knew the mission’s ultimate goal, we were empowered to make our own decisions and we lacked any fear that our commanders would later punish us for changing the mission parameters to accomplish our goal.

Business Example

Businesses often struggle with the same sort of ambiguity as seen on the battlefield (though I’ve never had someone try to kill me when delivering a presentation). In the financial services industry, underwriters evaluate potential customers several times a day. As with the military, there are specific procedures for how they should perform their job. And, like the military, there are situations their leaders hadn’t considered when they wrote their Standard Operating Procedures.

Here’s an example I’ve seen more than once: A loan or insurance policy application comes in to two underwriters from different companies and it doesn’t fit the exact definition of “acceptable”. The applicant does, however, have several attributes that mitigate the identified risks. Should the underwriters approve it?

The underwriter at Company A definitely won’t. He’s unclear on what his business’ philosophy is regarding “on the fence” applications. Is the company more risk adverse or does leadership want to grow? – he’s not sure. Besides that, he needs a special override from his manager to approve applications that don’t fit specified criteria. Finally, he tried getting an application approved a few years ago and his manager yelled at him for even thinking of it – he’s not doing that again.

The underwriter at Company B will approve the application. Here’s why: She knows her business is trying to grow top-line revenue and is willing to take on a little extra risk to do it. Her manager has explicitly spoken with her about her authority level and this falls within it. And, her manager publicly recognized a teammate for doing the same thing.

Ask yourself: Do your employees know your overall intent? If not, here are a few tips:

  1. Explicitly state your team’s or business’ goals and philosophy. Be clear about what you’re trying to achieve, when you’re trying to achieve it and what risks you might be willing to take to meet the goals.
  2. Ensure systems and policies enable you to empower your people. Formalize their ability to act on their own best judgment.
  3. Celebrate employees who have followed your “commander’s intent” without checking with you. Use it as a teaching moment for the others that may be afraid to test the waters.

To paraphrase Mr. Tyson, sometimes the competition, the market or the enemy “punches you in the mouth.” You had a plan, but now it’s fallen apart. With a clear commander’s intent, though, your team can keep working at peak efficiency. Providing a clear intent also acts as an employee multiplier. By providing well-defined direction, you can have every one of your employees carrying out your intent without having to check with you. That frees you up to finish your own work … and occasionally take a vacation!

I’m the Senior Director of Strategic Consulting at MaritzCX, but these opinions are my own.

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