A well-distributed meme in social media is a photo of Steve Jobs in a thoughtful pose with the quote, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” written in an italicized font above his head. Indeed, this is wise counsel for any leader seeking to manage an impactful team. These words, spoken by one of the most respected entrepreneurs in the latter half of the twentieth-century speaks directly to the art of empowering a team.
Empowerment can be a tricky term. Its etymology suggests the delegation of power or granting permission for the use of one’s ability to another. However, when you consider Steve Jobs’ quote, the empowerment in which he speaks is the eliciting of capabilities which are readily present in the team and not held by the manager. It’s about serving the team, understanding their talent, knocking down barriers, and avoiding being a barrier. It is at that point when the full potential of the team is realized.
When a team is struggling to reach its full potential, a self-aware manager will understand that the struggle is with the process, environment, or leadership in which the team finds itself rather than the team’s members themselves. A team struggling with low self-confidence is often due to unrealistic expectations which are left unmet. A team unable to innovate or stretch their skills is the result of low tolerance for failure. A team who is reactive and unable to focus is the result of the lack of vision or purpose. These are all warning signs that the team is lacking the empowerment needed to succeed.
Here are just a few examples of what a manager can do to empower their team to realize their full potential.
Provide vision and purpose
Whether or not the organization or company provides a vision and purpose for their employees, the team members of a team expect their manager and leader to provide one. The effort to do so may feel secondary in a “get s*** done” culture or a team who is living in survival mode; However, absent of a vision and purpose, managing the team’s morale and longevity will become futile. Productivity is fueled by vision and purpose, not by a never-ending stream of verbal prompts and hollow confidence. Southwest Airlines clearly states their corporate vision and mission on their website. This vision is the basis of their decision-making and policies; most importantly, it is embraced and promoted from the top of the organization. The result is the unique experience that has kept them as one of the most profitable airlines in an industry where few are surviving. This vision provides each person with a purpose and a clear understanding of their contribution to the customer’s experience and, ultimately, the success of the business.
“Getting out of the team’s way” can easily be misinterpreted as leaving the team alone to fend for themselves. While the liberty to release the power that is latent within the team is what we are seeking, boundaries provide direction and guidance toward its most potent application. Miles Davis’ famous improvisational jazz song, So What, offers a great example of liberty with limits. The song begins with a simple rhythm submitted by the piano and bass. At predetermined points, each instrument has the opportunity to free-form, demonstrating the remarkable talent of this assembly of greats while presenting a work that shows synergy and cohesiveness. Much like the bass in this song, boundaries serve as a guide toward success. Much like the piano, boundaries serve as the context in which the team’s talent can be expressed.
Listen and get to know your team
A manager who takes the time to listen to their team is one who learns of alternate ways of accomplishing a task. A manager who takes the time to know their team is one who understands their strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations and sees the opportunity to leverage the team for the needs of the moment. A manager who knows his team is one who is willing to take the risk of giving the team opportunities to try unexplored skills. In July 2018, Chicago Cubs first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, was presented with the opportunity to pitch in the 9th inning. Rizzo was pleading for this opportunity, and with a depleted bullpen in a significant loss to the Diamondbacks, Maddon handed him the ball. While the decision did not result in a win on the scoreboard, it resulted in a win for the team. Maddon was willing to take a risk of personal criticism to turn an otherwise confidence busting 7-1 loss into a morale boost for the team. While it is unlikely that we will see Rizzo on the mound in the future, Maddon’s team had no doubt that they have his ear and that their willingness to try something new was valued.
Leadership is, at times, counter-intuitive. We are brought into a management position with the expectation to leverage the resources available to accomplish the initiates of the organization. Our habits, whether it is nature or nurture, is to drive the team toward the deliverables as we understand it. All the while, being very cognitive that the team’s performance will be interpreted as our abilities to lead a team. We allow micromanagement and fear creep in further limiting the potency of our leadership and the team’s potential. Indeed, it doesn’t make sense to spend time hiring the most talented, experienced, and smart people we can find, only to smash these qualities into the mold of our limited talents, experience, and smarts. It takes the diversity of the team to take on the difficult challenges we all face in our daily work. Only an empowered team reaches their full potential.