Sunday, January 31, 2010

Let them fly

“... they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible, logical, responsible, practical...and they showed me a world where I could be dependable, clinical, intellectual, cynical…” These lyrics from the 1979 Supertramp Breakfast in America album (yes, back when an album was vinyl) stuck me while running the other day. The Logical Song was a hit single that questioned the idea we gain from the structure we learn in school and society. While we all certainly benefit, from this conformity and knowledge, there is something to be said for thought leaders.

Someone told me once that true leaders are lonely. They tend to be thought leaders and ahead of the pack. Is it possible that all the conformity the workplace requires actually causes the leader’s within us to cave to the organizational norms? We have all seen the fantastic things people can accomplish when management gives them license and let them fly. Often, our toughest job is getting out of the way.

What was the most impressive accomplishment you have seen achieved by empowering your team?


Anonymous said...

The song lyric you quoted reminded me of a much darker version of similar thoughts:

"Now, they take him and they teach him and they groom him for life
And they set him on a path where he's bound to get ill
Then they bury him with stars
Sell his body like they do used cars.
Now, he's hell-bent for destruction, he's afraid and confused
And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill...."

From "License to Kill," by Bob Dylan (written in 1985 or thereabouts?)

Cloud Downey said...

Good post!

Brian Jones II M.A. said...

The greatest accomplishment I have seen was in empowering my employees to make decisions on their own and to essentially become self-directed work teams. This clearly breaks away from the paradigm we as employees follow today.

Robin Clifton said...

In the traditional sense of this question, probably my most successful accomplishment as a manager would have been in my first use of empowering. I was in the Marines and barely 20 years old. The people working for me on my team (as many as 50 people) were all older and most were more educated. My role was to manage the transportation and security of musical instruments (easily worth more than a quarter of a million dollars.) The inherited work processes were cumbersome and rife with discontent. But, I first listened to my team, then incorporated what they suggested into a re-engineered process. This involved splitting into smaller teams and assigning team leaders. This also involved clear definition and communication up and down. The result was that it took a fraction of time (1/6) for a fraction of the people (1/2) to do the job. Truth be told, they empowered me.

Everyone was happy.

Now ... if you expand out of traditional .. in my role as systems analyst supporting a distribution center ( I did NOT manage them.) ... I viewed each person there as part of my "team" and did my best to empower each one in what ways I could when ever and in what context I could (respecting management). Things as small and simple as smiling. Praising for innovation and successes, allowing for mistakes (not condemning) - in order to empower them to do better going forward, working with them to utilize the system to get better results, and letting them be their own solution. But MOSTLY ... just listening and learning from them. I believe THIS laid the ground work for a successful RF physical inventory implementation that again ... significantly cut the time and costs to do the job. It provided a return on investment in less than a year. I strongly believe the reason for success was that the management and the workers embraced the new system instead of working against it. This I believe as being a direct result of having been empowered. The finance people praised it as the most smooth physical inventory they had seen in the history of that company.

And again ... everyone was happy.

Based on my experience, I'm not sure I totally agree with the statement: True leaders are lonely. In one sense - perhaps. But in another sense - my "team" filled that void.

Equiano Holman said...

Before I was an engineer I spent 4-years in the Marine Corps. During my time in I had the honor of leading a 9-man infantry Squad. The leadership principles that I was taught have stayed with me to this day. The most important lesson I learned was that my team would rise or fall to the level of expectations that I set. If I trusted them enough to do there job professional and achevie a high level of excellence then they would rise to the challenge. However, if I walked into a room and expected my team to screw up and began to micro-manage them it was a guarantee that we would fail at our task and fail miserable at that.

The other important elements of leadership in the Corps is "to lead by example" and to push decision making down to the lowest possible level. As a result every man learns the job of his superior and every superior officer learns how to do the job of his subordinates. Keep in mind that this isn't done for alturistic reasons. If we had to actually fight a war the Corps automatically assumes that there will be large number of casualities and in all likelihood the officer in charge will be shot. Therefore, in order to accomplish the mission it is vital that ever Marine has the ability to step into the leadership role. As a result the Marines always continuously improve and as a result the US Marine Corps is the most elite fighting force in the world.

I feel that employees will do there best work when they feel empowered, have freedom to make there own decisions and know that thier leadership respects and supports them every step of the way. It's counter-intuative but the structure of the Marine Corps is what allows for creativity and excellence in task execution. By "structure" I don't mean micro-managment but rather an enviornment where responsibilites and expectations are clearly defined; and intelligent risk taking, teamwork, continuous improvment, and individual accountability is highly valued.

Too often in corporate culture managers are more worried about there personal recognition and are not asking "what is best for my company?" ; "What is best for my team?"

Dan Rockwell said...

Thanks for your post. One thing I do during discussions concerning vision is say, "I think you are reaching too low. What can we do that will take you higher?"

Also your comment, "get out of the way" is something I put in a recent Leadership Freak Blog.

Thanks for your work

Robert Fisher said...

Brian hit it on the head. Self managed /directed teams that are empowered to stretch the limits of their playing field and are rewarded for pushing against boundaries do amazing things!
I led a team that transitioned to this model as an experimental prototype before rolling out to the organization I was in. Biggest impact we had was to take an under performing team that could not meet manufacturing goals or work together and once they got the concept( much coaching and persuading) took off. Team ended up far exceeding the M goals by 15% while trimming the process time.
Personally my best example was that I was bored and the company let me engage myself on a project where I acted as the PM from ROI estimates to program close out. End result of this was the project decreased operating costs by $1M per year and streamlined the material qualification and shipping time.
I urge any leader to spend a little time mentoring and when that person comes along that challenges existing boundaries; work with them to explore the possibilities and let them know that you have their back in case the experiment results in unplanned outcomes. Remove road barriers and bottlenecks,be a safety net and you could get to watch a paradigm shift occur right in front of your eyes!

Jason Bromiley said...

Great post and great comment. This inspires me to get a second wind while trying to achieve my most impressive accomplishment. Thanks.

Todd Warton said...

Awesome example Equiano (and I totally know what your talking about). ;)

I am not sure if I could top that except to say..right on. The personal glory meter and "managing upwards" seems to be the norm versus looking out for your team mates that support you (and whom you need to succeed). But then not everyone we know gets exposed to an organization that takes (in most cases) inexperienced boys and men; and turns them into an elite team member in a short amount of time. But then again, not everyone can claim the title. :)

Semper Fi Marine

Greg Johnson said...

John, I couldn't agree more. I've always found if you let people do their job and not micro manage. They won't let you down. Take care of your team first.

Anonymous said...

What is a vinyl album? 8-)~ just kidding. This is a great post and I do agree with you.
I think some Leaders are alone because they are ahead of the pack, however they need to know when it is appropriate to conform to organizational norms and expectations and when these norms end up impacting progress or productivity. A true leader can recognize how to play this balancing act.

- Searching for Unicorns

J Wong said...

A wise man once told me, let employees work to the levels they see within themselves. Employees who are early on in their careers “don’t know what they are not supposed to know or what they are not expected to handle”. If you empower your employees to reach their full potential you will be pleased with the results and many times you will get a solution or a plan that exceeds your expectation. If people are given the right guidance and are set up for success and they will deliver!

Andrew Halonen said...

My management style is to empower my team and let them go. This would drive my colleagues crazy because their style was quite the opposite, that is to micro-manage their people. However, when we got real busy, thesr smar managers hassled me because I had people to delegate work to - as if this happened by accident!? Hire great people, empower them, and they will amaze you! Plus, you won't need to work as many hours.

Lawrence van Rijn said...

I reckon that in the last 5 years managers moved from guiiding the horse to holding the reigns firm. From aspiring to micro-managing. All for thegood of the $$$, the reports and managed expectations. Under those terms new fresh idea's get killed, smothered or even worse half done. Yes, that presents a problem for the next decade at least. People coming to power who shouldn't people rejected that should manage. When you are at the mercy of divident meetings you surrender to the greed of many. New idea's are never born under those stars.

Joseph Greene said...

Agreed with Mr. van Rijn, margin has to be balanced among investors, employees, development, marketing, and so forth.

Not sure that I agree that true leaders are lonely. I observe that the best leaders build consensus around good ideas. It is essentially salesmanship. They engage others and spread enthusiasm for the idea. To lead is not to run ahead of the pack and leave them in the dust, rather to stay just a little ahead and continually inspire them to keep following.

Cindy Starks said...

I really liked this post. I don't have any examples to give right now, but I just wanted you to know I agree with what you said.

Cindy Starks
former speechwriter to Karl Krapek and George David
when they headed up Otis Elevator

David Phillips said...

I vaguely remember a TV interview with a successful person (can't remember, but it might have been H. Ross Perot). He was asked (maybe by Larry King), "What is the secret to your suceess?" (or words to that effect). Whereupon came this answer: "There's no secret. Hire people who know what they're doing, give them what they need to do the job, and GET OUT OF THE WAY." I always remembered that, I just can't say for sure who said it.

David Phillips said...

On another note: Bill Gates was once asked how many people work at Microsoft. He said, "About half of them!"

Mike Ratchford said...

I am reminded of a time when I was the VP of Quality & EH&S. We had a small fire in a machine in the shop around noon on a Friday afternoon. While the fire was put out quickly, the shop filled with smoke and had to be evacuated for a short time. When I entered the shop afterward, the VP Operations and the VP Supply Chain were huddled near the machine discussing which supplier we could send the partially completed work to. Nearby stood the operator of the machine that had caught fire. This associate was a union employee and, even though we had dismissed the shift, he was standing there thinking of a way to get the cell back into operation. He told me that there was another machine in the cell that had not been used for some time. He felt that, if he came in on Saturday, he could get the machine on line and get the work moving again. I asked the other executives to wait until Monday to take any action to give the machinist a chance to solve the problem. He and another machinist came in very early on Saturday morning and they were making parts again on Monday morning, saving the company time and money over the knee-jerk management solution of sending the parts out of house. I have always been impressed by the leadership shown by this individual in that situation. All he needed from management was for us to get out of the way.

gloria willis said...

Not my accomplishment but I witnessed an insurance team increase by 600% in one year by changing their target market and getting everyone to support everyone's efforts. It was a dynamic example of leadership and team to me.

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