Want to empower your team? Find opportunities in the chaos.
During times of uncertainty and change, it’s easy for your team to get lost in the chaotic swirl of indecision —to wring their hands and wait and see. It’s also the perfect time to empower your team, to step up and take the lead.
“Where there is chaos, seize control.”
One of my early bosses and mentors, Gail, said this to me almost daily during a turbulent time at Verizon. Gail was a world-class role model of how to empower your team.
I was young and newly promoted in an HR role in the midst of a big merger. We were reorganizing every department. Everyone had a new boss and a new team. Many senior leaders were in the midst of relocating their families to Manhattan which added to the distraction.
We were merging systems, policies, programs—you name it.
Every time I would walk through her open door with an idea, she would say the same thing: “Where there is chaos ____________ (and she would smile, wait for me to fill in the blank with the words “seize control”, and then eagerly listen to what I had to say.)
“Seizing control” had nothing to do with power or politics. It was all about learning to lead courageously when others were not, and to do the right thing for the business.
Gail knew we knew that.
If you want to empower your team in this way, be sure they know that too.
What Gail would do next made all the difference too.
When I questioned the political ramifications of not getting the right buy-in she would offer these questions:
- “Do we need this?”
- “Is it a sound business decision?”
- “Do you have a strong implementation plan?”
- “Is your team behind it?”
- “Has anyone told you not to do it?”
Then she would say, “Karin by the time everyone figures out that we need to do this, your team will already be doing it, and have great results. You’ll have best practices we can scale elsewhere. Just be sure you execute well and tell me before you break any big rules. I promise to have your back.”
If you want to empower your team, it starts by having their backs.
Tips for Encouraging Empowerment on Your Team
Now that I grow leaders for a living, I’ve often thought about Gail and her approach to empowerment and why it worked so well. Here are a few tips that can help.
1. Create real clarity about what matters most and why.
Although politics, people, and policies were in flux, we knew unequivocally what mattered most for our roles.
Getting the right people in the right seats.
Re-recruiting our top talent.
And, showing up as true strategic partners to ensure the business was thriving.
If what we wanted to do contributed to one of those priorities, we knew we had a green light.
2. Articulate parameters and boundaries for decision-making.
When you’re working to empower your team, be sure your team knows what kinds of decisions you expect them to make and which are out of bounds. (Our free strategic empowerment tool makes this easy). For example, Gail was clear about which decisions we needed to include our finance partners and which did not. And, also the kinds of decisions that might add to the chaos.
3. Encourage your team to challenge and empower one another.
Empowerment can feel scary. It’s easier to wait for permission so there’s someone else to blame as things go wrong. Gail made it crystal clear that this is the way we do things around here. So, she would say things like, “Go ask Lisa (my peer) what I’m going to say about this idea.” And of course, she knew Lisa would smile and say, “Where there is chaos seize control.” And then, ask me the questions Gail would.
When Gail retired, I took over a good portion of her role. That was one of the easiest leadership transitions I’ve ever made, because the team already was empowered to “seize control” as needed, and I could focus on the more strategic elements of the role.
4. Help your team fail forward.
As you can imagine, when you truly empower your team, sometimes they’re going to really screw it up. I know I did. What happens next matters more than just about anything else if you want your team to stay empowered in the future.
Another of Gail’s favorite phrases, was, “Well, we certainly learned something from this one, right? The good news is you’ll never do THAT again, will you?” All said with a friendly smile.
5. Celebrate the empowered behaviors, not just the outcomes.
Although it was over two decades ago, I clearly remember Gail’s staff meetings where she would call us out, “Karin tell them what you did … and exactly how you did it.” Sometimes, she would laugh and say, “I’m not sure it’s going to work, but it’s one heck of a plan.”
You get more of what you encourage and celebrate and less of what you ignore. If you want to empower your team, call out the empowered behaviors you want to see more.
Have you ever worked for an empowering leader like Gail? What are your best practices to empower your team?