The best coaching lesson I ever received in my career life went something like this. It was probably day two of my job in my first large organization. My boss at the time (and business coach to this day) sat me down and drew a simple graph on the white board. He wrote the words ENGAGE and EMPOWER on this graph along the X and Y axis points. He drew a line diagonally up showing a direct relationship between the two. He told me this was the key to managing performance and don’t ever forget it.
I have indeed never forgotten that lesson. I have many contacts who work as consultants to troubleshoot issues in the workplace with complex models and high price tags. I’ve seen well intentioned and highly intelligent leaders pour thousands of dollars into training to help get their workforce to the next level, only to see these individuals walk out with the skills once trained, or refuse to apply. I’ve seen leaders recycle staff at a rapid fire pace thinking the next one will perform better, wait the next one, no this time really the next one. One word in my opinion sums up why all the efforts, great and small, fail to lead to performance. Control.
I have learned that when I want to get the most out of my team, both those I manage directly and those that I functionally influence, I have had to step back from control. It is hard for me because I’m a controlling person by nature. But this poison zaps the effectiveness of efforts to develop the workforce and get them to the next level. This is because controlling environments send a power message. We (management) don’t trust. We (management) are better than you. We (management) are more powerful than you, and typically enjoy that power. We (management) set the rules and won’t be challenged. We (management) are insecure and do not want to let our employees come up with better ideas than us. The human spirit was designed to flourish under care and nurture, not control. The crux of all civil rights movements have direct ties to this same root cause. One group clings to control and wants to usurp their right to have this control over the other. Whether in the realm of nations or in the realm of companies, control will ruin the recipe for success.
So what does it mean exactly to engage and empower? Engaging means capturing the mind and spirit in my book. It means I listen until I understand and I show (and mean) that I care. People tune in when they realize you are really listening and care. Now this engaging and tuning in is then evidenced through action and letting the person go forth and act on their unique ideas and opinions. That is where the empowering comes in. The proof of the pudding is that I then step back, let go the the reins, and let the employee make personal choices in his or her business methods and decisions. In other words, I step back from control.
I think of when my boss who gave me this advice applied this very thing on me. I had operated in a small (mostly one state) operation. When I joined his team I suddenly picked up over 25 states that I had to support. My HR hats had to multiply overnight. I went from recruiting maybe 5-10 a year to recruiting 50-100 staff members in about a year, many tied directly to the success of a critical government demonstration project on the east coast that was driving future operational models for a FORTUNE Company. I didn’t think I could do it. And that’s where my coach showed to me how this formula worked. He provided me the tools I needed with lots of training from the corporate office on HR, legal support, direct recruiting tools and more. When I came back from the training with a new process and opinion he let me apply it. He made himself available all the time. When I’d go to his office and tell him that I was about to crack because staffing up at the level demand was about to kill me, he’d pump me up and set me loose again. Eventually I did it but only because he captured my attention, motivated me, gave me the tools to succeed and empowered me. I only had this boss with me for four months but it was the most critical four months of business coaching I’ve ever had in my life. I taught me how powerful the human spirit is if respected and trusted and motivated. This coach engaged and empowered me.
When it comes to the development side of training and development, this simple formula of “engage plus empower” is the absolute lynchpin. People need a chance to apply themselves on their own. Now of course if the tools and equipment (training helps here) are missing the employee will flounder and fail. Management is fully accountable to provide the right tools. For example, training on the systems and policies and practices with resources to rely on where there are questions. Or, providing training dollars to support outside learning needed to keep up on business acumen. Wise managers will also make themselves readily available, but not forcefully omnipresent. Accountability (eg setting clear targets one must meet and be measured by) are also essential. Engaging and empowering is not a shortcut to allow sloppy workforce performance. Quite the opposite. It is sending the message that you are capable and I trust you, so go forth and do great things!
I thank my business coach all the time for this simple but powerful lesson learned. I hope that I can apply this lesson in all my endeavors.