Stop Delegating. Give Them Power, Instead.


Share on LinkedIn

It’s a leadership sacred crow. One of those things you’re taught in a middle management leadership class.

Don’t do it all yourself. Delegate to them.

YES to Part One of that statement. About the delegation piece? How about empowering your frontline team members to make decisions without you. Eliminate the endless stream of emails or messages that seek Mommy’s or Daddy’s approval for key decisions.

Give them power to decide. That means giving up some power of your own.

It’s an age-old story. SAP, the German software giant, is animated by a progressive leadership mindset that aspires to meaningfully engage its employees at every organizational level. Near the end of his tenure as co-CEO of SAP, Jim Hagemann Snabe discovered that the company had amassed more than 50,000 KPIs (key performance indicators) covering every job in the company. He was horrified.

We were trying to run the company by remote control, Snabe recalls. We had all this amazing talent, but we asked them to put their brains on ice.

Consider this antidote to top-heavy management overkill. Michelin, the venerable tire manufacturer, decided to disrupt its notoriously hierarchical corporate structure. In 2012, it launched a decision-making reboot called responsibilasation (French for “empowerment”). The premise was simple. How can we turn a top-down decision-making enterprise into a more bottom-up initiation and decision-making venture?

As meticulously outlined in Gary Hamel’s and Michele Zanini’s article in the current issue of Harvard Business Review (“How Michelin gives its frontline teams the power to make a difference”, HBR, July/August 2020), responsibilisation has delivered half a billion dollars’ worth of added revenue and manufacturing improvements by the start of this year. Yup, no small potatoes.

Want some of these rewards for your workforce and your business? While each organization begins with a different baseline, there are 2 fundamental questions that will get you started on your workforce empowerment transformation.

If you’re a Senior leader, manager or supervisor of any group of employees, always begin here:

  1. What decisions can you make without my help?
  2. What problems can you solve without involving me or colleagues from other departments in your problem-solving?

Simple, right? The moment we drill down into these questions, we tend to discover just how many decisions we don’t really need “to own.” Moreover – and this may be the tougher lesson for all Senior leaders – allowing those who are closer to daily front-line job performance to own critical decisions will often produce better decisions.

When Michelin first began its empowerment experiment, it recruited 38 teams totaling 1500 employees (roughly 1% of Michelin’s total workforce). Team leaders were encouraged to let go of their decision-making and, instead, enable those they supervised to decide. Surprise. Employees were jaded from years of corporate decision-making on their behalf. They weren’t jumping with joy at the chance at making more decisions. They were cynical about this latest corporate initiative. Sound familiar?

At Michelin, the tipping point came when employees realized that no one was going to stop them. That empowerment wasn’t another management fad.

I realize just how powerful that statement is as I jot it down: NO ONE WAS GOING TO STOP THEM.

Here are just a few of the lessons Michelin learned about redistributing authority. I hope these lessons will be helpful to you, whether you’re championing a formal empowerment experiment or not:

  • Build momentum for your experiment by starting with your front-line teams. They are the employees that have the most to gain from greater decision-making autonomy. Senior managers may be more vested in holding on to their organizational authority. They have worked hard to “get there.” They may not be ready to share power.
  • Make participation voluntary. Invite teams to participate in authority redistribution instead of mandating it. Don’t force people to own more decision-making. Be, instead, ready to be surprised. Some of your disgruntled staff who habitually complain about the horrors of company management may not be the ones who step up to the plate. They relish being victims. They like being disgruntled. They may not actually wish to “own” anything.
  • Upgrade skills. New responsibilities often require new capabilities and new skill sets. Set your teams up to be successful in taking greater ownership of their work by providing them with the training and information they need to succeed.

Companies that have shifted more decision-making authority to front-line workers learn that in the long run, it may require hiring a differently skilled employee. A strong entrepreneurial mindset (even though that may be stated as one of your corporate values) suddenly needs to be fully lived and embodied, by every member of the workforce, not just the Executive Team. Some of the existing workforce will not make the shift.

But oh, such are the rewards of more empowerment and shared decision-making in practice: Nucor is America’s leading steelmaker, with a $22 billion annual revenue. At Nucor, operating crews take responsibility for business development, capital planning, product innovation, process improvement and cross-plant coordination. Each worker is trained in the economics of steel, and generous bonuses reward teams for boosting capital efficiency.

The numbers speak for themselves. Overhead at Nucor is low. Its head offices house only about 100 employees, a fraction of the headquarters staff at comparable firms. At 3% of revenue, this corporate overhead expense is half of that of Nucor’s peers. And Nucor’s revenue per employee is three times the industry average.

Whether it’s Nucor or Michelin, the principle is simple. Stop delegating. Shift power. Authorize front-line decision-making. It always starts with these 2 fundamental questions:

  1. What decisions can you make without my help?
  2. What problems can you solve without involving me?

Bureaucracy is dead, writes Doug Kirkpatrick, one of the world’s leading authorities on self-management and the author of “The No-Limits Enterprise: Organizational Self-Management in the New World of Work.” It just doesn’t know it yet.

Contemplate the 2 questions. And don’t call it delegating, please. You’re redistributing authority.

That’s powerful stuff.

Originally posted at Brilliant Best

Achim Nowak
Achim Nowak is an Executive Coach, Business Thinker, TEDx Speaker and Mastermind Convener. The author of 3 books on Personal Presence, Achim has helped hundreds of CEOs and C-Suite executives in global enterprises around the world to amplify their personal impact. He has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fast Company, USA Today and on NPR.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here