Sunday, September 7, 2008

Empowerment at Every Level

A very accomplished and smart friend of mine tells this story: at the age of 19, he was working at a leading national department store as a stock assistant. Although he was hired into the position with little training, he worked hard to figure out the best way to stock hundreds of items in such a way that they would be organized and easily retrievable. Unfortunately, regardless of how hard he worked, his boss was never satisfied. The boss criticized him frequently for taking too long to do his job – never mind that there were no established guidelines for how the job should be done or how long it should take. In his performance review, the boss noted that my friend had been recommended by another department, and that therefore the boss would henceforth view that department's recommendations with skepticism.

Without even hearing the rest of the story, I knew where it had to be going. My friend is extremely intelligent and self-aware, and even in his 30s has accomplished things that others spend their whole lives trying to achieve.

Eventually, my friend got a new boss. The new boss encouraged him and gave him room to figure out the best way to handle his responsibilities. And what happened? My friend developed a system that the chain ended up deploying in several Orange County stores, realizing a savings of about a million dollars.

Now, dear reader, this may seem like an obvious lesson, particularly if you currently manage, say, a team of programmers. But remember – he was just a stock assistant, and a teenager at that. As yourself how much latitude you'd offer such an employee.

Give your people an opportunity to innovate – give them time to learn and room to fail – and the most amazing things will happen.

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