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Employ, empower, energise

It was on Sunday April 26, 2015 when I walked into a fast food outlet shop at the Belgravia Shopping Centre in Harare. I had just placed an order for a pizza, when a certain lady walked into the shop with a large pizza box. She requested to see the person in charge; who was immediately called.

The lady explained that she had just bought the large pizza at the the same company’s outlet in the CBD. She apparently pointed out that the pizza she bought had some problems ( I did not get the actual details of the problem).

The youngman who was the supervisor just asked the customer one simple thing; that is to record her name and contact details in a book he provided. The supervisor simply gave an instruction to his team to make a replacement pizza for the customer. I was amazed at the speed and ease with which the supervisor made his decision, which was made on the spot without phoning the other branch or calling some manager for approval.

I just marvelled at the decision making process that the company has put in place which empowered the supervisor to delight his customer. Indeed the customer looked surprised when she was told that another pizza was now being made for her without any hustle. The time it took for the customer to raise her issue to the time she was told to take a seat and wait for her replacement pizza was just under a couple of minutes.

I reflected on this incident in light of the effect of the supervisor’s action on the customer’s future loyalty to the company’s brand. What made the supervisor’s decision possible is that there is obviously a superior above who has empowered him to make decisions without referral; and the same applies the superior’s superior until we get to the pinnacle of the organisation. Lesson learnt from this incident is simply that teams should be empowered to make decisions when it matters most.

In this instalment, we will look at the initiatives that leaders can take to empower their teams. Many leaders believe that they are already making good efforts in empowering their teams. What should happen is that leaders should give their team enough latitude to make decisions; without second guessing them. I know a lot of leaders are more than willing to allow their team members to make decisions.

However, the disempowering element is that the leaders are quick to step in when they believe that some decisions have been made in a manner that is not the same as the leader would have done; that is a great mistake made by leaders. Leaders; do not make that mistake; for it is totally demoralising to your team. You probably know from your own experience from a leader who never let go of the decision making process.

The greatest part of never letting go by leaders happens in executing key change projects. It would be best to assign the team members responsibilities by letting them own key projects from conception to finality. Once leaders allow team members to make key decisions, allowing them to own projects and feel responsible for completion is the logical next step.

On the other hand, there is nothing as disempowering for a team than a leader who does not fight for them. As a leader, you need to be aware that whether it is standing up for your own team or standing beside them and supporting them in a disagreement with an outsider. As a leader, you should always take the stance of fighting for your team; willing to go to battle for them. If there are obvious mistakes made by the team; rather settle those with the team members once the bigger fight is over.

On another note, it is important to keep encouraging the team. A leader should learn the skill of saying thank you to their teams when a job is done well, or a particular target has been met. It would be folly to keep pushing without stopping to say thanks. The gratitude from the leader is encouragement which can go “further than beyond” in creating team chemistry, longevity, and commitment. It is only logical that when appreciating the team; when resources allow, they should be rewarded with even the smallest of gifts, or even a thank you card.

Have you seen what coaches in sports do when their teams are playing, they scream at team members and push them to do better, while also giving them a hug to thank them when needed. Have you ever publicly, in a casual conversational way, thanked a team member in the company in front of their colleagues? Be the “sport coach”, do it and you will be amazed by the results.

Most team members are in the game so that they can grow their own skills. The only way a person can grow is when they are challenged to do more than they already do and or already know. It is healthy to occasionally overwhelm your team members with a challenge; just be ready to assist if they are struggling. It reminds me of the words of one of my dearest teachers, Professor Tom Ryan from the University of Cape Town Graduate School; he would always say “for anyone to grow, they should be thrown into the deep sea of whatever they have to learn, they should be given a life jacket only when they are about to sink”.

The projects that leaders assign to their team members should cause them to feel like they are not prepared or ready. If they feel underwhelmed, they will probably end up looking elsewhere for greater assignments and more responsibility. Remember team members are looking for personal growth.

What is also important in the empowerment of team members is for the leader to be prepared to give them permission to challenge the leader; thus ultimately give them permission to push back. Leaders should give their team members permission to say NO to the leader themselves. That is not an easy one.

Many leaders cannot imagine their team members challenging their own decisions. In politics, team members who challenge their leaders will be branded rebels and will find themselves in the dustbins of history.

In the corporate world any challenge from team members will almost always be dealt with by the leaders as insubordination or insolence. The chapter on allowing members to challenge their leaders is a long one; we will dedicate some future instalments to that subject.

Sam Hlabati specialises in Systems Thinking and Reward Management. He holds the following certifications: Senior Professional Human Resources®, Global Remuneration Professional®, Certified Compensation Professional® and an MBA in Systems Thinking. You can join the discussion through email on samhlabati@gmail.com and follow on twitter @samhlabati.

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