Empowerment: Toll Road Ahead
If you work in a product-led company, the terms “empowered product teams” (Marty Cagan), “freedom and responsibility” (Netflix), and various other talent-growing methods must ring a bell. When talent becomes global and the survival of software products depends on innovation, employers are eager to hire the talent necessary to create their next growth engine.
At least, they say so.
Although empowerment is a beautiful hiring term, it’s easier said than done because it comes with a cost. Despite knowing the type of leaders I wanted to grow, it wasn’t always easy to change the individual-contributor behaviors that had helped me thus far. Along the way, I’ve made many mistakes, fought some instincts, learned a lot, and attempted unorthodox methods.
I’d like to share four key principles to practice if you aspire to grow your talent to lead the organization.
Get off your high horse; learning is not over
It’s far too common to forget that no successful leader was born with wisdom, experience, and precise judgment. Although talent levels do vary, practice makes perfect.
You are no different.
No matter how experienced and talented you are, you still make mistakes and need to develop and learn. If all you wish is to tell others what to do because you “know better,” then you missed the entire empowerment concept.
Once you’ve embraced that no one speaks absolute truths, including yourself and your managers, you are ready to build a team of critical thinkers. These talents will grow the organization in directions you’ve never even dreamed of.
Will your team feel comfortable challenging you and risk hurting your ego despite your empowerment philosophy?
One of the best approaches I’ve found is making your team an active part of your growth. Asking for their advice when facing challenges, communicating your failures, and discussing lessons learned are great ways to make them share their thoughts.
As you become more confident, try to test new areas where you expect them to think critically.
Recently, I reviewed the list of management courses that HR suggested we take and didn’t find any relevant topic. However, how I rank my managerial skills is not the only question. What my team believes I should improve is my reality check. With this in mind, I sent them the list and asked them to recommend courses from which I could benefit. Just like that, my team subtly pinpointed areas in which I can improve.
You cannot limit critical thinking to areas or discussions in which you’re comfortable. You want your talents to express themselves (respectfully) without fearing any repercussions. No one ever earned trust while sitting on their high horse.
Avoid “go fetch” tasks
Have you ever reached a location and barely remembered how you drove there? We have all suffered from “highway hypnosis.” However, let me guess: it has never happened to you abroad.
It is not a coincidence that one of the best ways to avoid this state is to shut down the navigation app. The more decisions you have to make, the better your brain considers its sensors.
Autopilot is not limited to driving. If you give your team exact directions without forcing them to think, they’ll end up with highway hypnosis — doing the job successfully, but with minimal attention.
Sounds easy to avoid, right?
The less experienced your team is, the more guidance they’ll need. Sometimes, you know precisely what to do, and the fastest path is to send your team to fetch a tactical ball. You can’t deny it; it’s tempting.
Of course, I won’t recommend stopping throwing balls altogether. Every coach must develop new drills to drive their talents’ growth. Thus, whenever I want my team to do something, I do my best to throw the ball into a maze. It ensures that they’ll have to pay attention, try, fail, and improve. Requiring them to pay close attention and make decisions will grow their skills much faster.
For example, when discussing my team’s planned features, I sometimes recognize that they’ve overlooked a critical customer insight. Dictating the required changes is the fastest approach, but it does not facilitate proper growth. Accordingly, I instead ask guiding questions and direct them to the relevant sources to look for answers (i.e., the maze). Once they find the ball, we discuss how the insights affect their solution. In the process, they’ve not only gained insights but also a tool for the future.
Granted, walking through mazes can also be tiring. Through consideration of my team’s feedback, I’ve learned that talents appreciate the knowledge gained over the long run. However, they may sometimes feel as though you could have saved them hours of wandering around the maze if you had provided a simple answer. Make sure that your team feels comfortable asking for shortcuts when it makes sense.
Whoever thinks that decision-making and accountability can be separated will soon learn that “success has many friends, [and] failure is an orphan.” If you want to grow leaders, you must let them lead.
However, before doing so, be sure that you’ve developed a culture of critical thinking and that your team has spent sufficient time acquiring the necessary tools in the maze. I’ve seen too many people “decide” to conform to their boss’s opinion or demonstrate poor judgment because they didn’t know what questions to ask or where to look for the answers.
Now, prepare yourself!
Letting others decide against your opinion is not trivial at all. If you love being a leader, then you probably love making decisions, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that people view you as an opinionated person.
But don’t worry; there’s a path where you remain opinionated and let others decide.
My attempts to state when I only “thought” or “assumed” something never worked well. In fact, I often felt as though people came to “consult” with me simply to hand the decision back to me. Eventually, I learned that you need to push them to make decisions and trust that the total weight of accountability will change the inputs they seek.
Here are some tips that worked for me:
- Restrain your urge to share your opinion if all you hear is an informative description of the situation. Instead, ask back, “what would you do?” to dig further into the dilemma.
- Guide your people to consult with others who create value, not for their rubber stamp. That includes you.
- If you have conflicting views but the truth is unknown, encourage your team to prove their point with the right validation tools. You can even test both options if it makes sense. Insist on it if you believe that they compromise to please you.
- Over time, if you believe that they avoid accountability by asking for your approval (e.g., in the form of consultation) when they could have made a decision, avoid sharing your opinion and ask them to decide. If they need to hear more opinions, make sure that they consult with those who can shed light on the right call but who won’t share accountability (e.g., peers and not managers).
My best advice is to build their judgment step by step. No one benefits from catastrophic decisions just for freedom. Instead, start with more minor decisions with lower risk. Keep motivating them, celebrate the good decisions, and insist on learning from the bad ones. At some point, they’ll be able to judge when to approve, consult, or inform you about their decisions.
Mistakes are a springboard
Making decisions is scary. After all, the more you innovate, the less you know for sure, and the higher your chances of being wrong!
Assuming that your talents consult with whoever can add value, the question should not be if they made the absolute “right” call. In many instances, we will only know that in the aftermath. Instead, ask whether someone else could have decided better than them. If so, have they consulted with them?
To empower your teams, you must accept that mistakes are part of innovation and that nobody holds a perfect record. As long as the mistakes are not repetitive and didn’t happen because anyone was careless, they are inevitable. Treat them as lessons and move on.
You would face the ultimate empowerment test if you were rooting against a decision that happened to be wrong. Thus, ask yourself: is it a pattern? If it is, help your talents improve their judgment because they ignore good advice. If it’s not, remember that you probably could not prove your point either, and next time you might be wrong. If they believe you are making them a scapegoat, they’ll lose trust in you and probably ask for your rubber stamp on every tactical decision.
With that in mind, here comes your responsibility: as you demand your team to stand for their opinions, you should do the same with your managers. If you hear complaints regarding your team’s failures, remind your managers of the unknowns, the views you collected before, why you believe it was the best possible decision, and what you’ve learned from the mistake.
Even if empowering sounds trivial, try to check yourself in daily situations:
- Have you recently made a decision that affected your people but avoided asking for their opinion because some might be disappointed? You still sit on your high horse.
- When you have the entire action plan in your mind, do you delegate tactical tasks without leaving room for creativity? You send your teams to “go fetch.”
- Have you insisted on your opinion even if it was a tactical detail or you weren’t 100% certain that you were right? You don’t foster decisions.
- Do you find yourself saying, “I told you so,” even before recognizing a pattern? Do you question people’s judgment although you didn’t know better? They’ll be afraid to make mistakes, and you might limit your team’s creativity and courage.
When you hear about empowerment, you mostly hear about its benefits, and they sell well. However, no one can bluff for too long. Talents recognize when you don’t put your money where your mouth is, and soon they’ll either leave or become wing-clipped. Additionally, some people need guidance to unlock their talent. Without supporting their growth, you don’t know what you’ll miss.
When I had to scale my organization, I realized that the only sustainable way was to grow leaders who take their domains to new heights. However, adopting an empowering mindset wasn’t always easy. Not only did I have to change my instincts, but sometimes I have to act in non-traditional ways that not everyone understands before we see the impact. As with all “people’s management” things, it might take time.
My journey as a manager provides daily situations that test whether I practice what I preach. At least I know that even when I make mistakes, my team is as committed to my growth as I am committed to theirs. They are empowered leaders.
Do you have more insights to share with other leaders?
Write them down in the comments.