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The Power to Serve

June 1, 2005

 

By Julie Sturgeon

Peter Grazier was delighted to discover that his bag of oatmeal cookies from the bakery contained two extra chocolate chip cookies. Because the cookies weren't cheap, Grazier, president of Teambuilding Inc., knew it was no accident. It was a deliberate act of customer care initiated by a clerk empowered to make decisions. A decision that now has Grazier driving 30 minutes to do business at that bakery.

Yet as a consultant, Grazier constantly wrestles with managers' fear of pushing decision making to the front lines. Ty Strout, cae, rce, CEO of the Arizona Association of Realtors®, admits he fit that mold perfectly. Although he's been in the association business more than 30 years, he didn't embrace employee empowerment until the last decade. "You get caught up in the I-have-the-title,-so-therefore-I-probably-know-best mentality," Strout confesses.

Surveys and statistics beg to differ. According to research conducted by Culture Counts, a management consultancy in Denver, happy customers require three criteria:

1. To talk with someone knowledgeable about the business.
2. To work with someone who has authority to take action.
3. To be heard and appreciated.

Staffers who require permission to address a customer's needs are likely to become frustrated. That, according to Duane Cashin, a Connecticut retailer who often speaks on the topic of employee empowerment, can cause the body to react by shutting down the ability to listen. "Customer service employees without decision-making authority may say the right words, but on the inside they have the wrong attitude," says Cashin.

Jim Peters, cae, rce, CEO of the South Carolina Association of Realtors®, designates each of his 12 staff members as team captain of a particular area, complete with decision-making authority. As a result, the association has blossomed into one of the most influential bodies on the state's legislative front. Thanks to his team's decision-making freedom and innovative thinking, Peters has also tripled his educational offerings, and he estimates that the group's legislative effectiveness has quadrupled in the last five years.Look for the

signs

Not sure what empowerment looks like? You're not alone. Management experts have cut through the confusion to tell you what signs define empowered employees.
They complete projects on time. Delays usually signal a breakdown in empowerment.
They offer action solutions, not just problems. The more creative the solutions, the more comfortable your employees are in saying what they feel.
They will make mistakes. That shows they are more interested in taking a chance on being "right" than in coping with the repercussions of being "wrong."

Walk the walk

"[Employee empowerment] is not a program to start. It's a philosophy, a way of trusting that people want to give their very best," Grazier says. So it's essential to internalize the message. Strout tells his staff, "I'm not the manager, I'm the coach." He's conquered the first step of employee empowerment in Grazier's book, Go Team! Take Your Team to the Next Level: "If you say yes, yes, yes but inwardly have great concerns, or are doing it because it's the latest bestseller, you won't come off as genuine [to your staff] and nothing changes," Grazier explains.

Whitney Walpole, president of Culture Counts, suggests drawing a clear vision of the culture you want to build. She's quick to point out, though, that it's essential for employees to have the training they need to interpret that vision. She encourages leaders to schedule brown-bag lunches at which they explain, in informal terms and in a casual setting, how the association makes money. Peters' employees select a management book-- such as Gung Ho or Good to Great--to study as a group each summer.

Management experts also stress practice. For instance, some consultants recommend that you ask each person at an employee meeting to bring three possible solutions to a specific customer service dilemma. Or, you could engage your team in a volunteer activity in the local community. Another expert suggests posting an idea board where you display employee ideas, how they were implemented, and what impact they had. A nice touch is to name the impact after the employee who came up with the idea or send flowers in appreciation.

"The real estate industry is going through a major metamorphosis. So we need to stretch, go into new programs, and step into areas never traveled before," Peters explains, adding, "If we create a situation where everyone has to run a decision up the line, we'll never move forward."

Empowerment for the staff of one

If you run an association single-handedly, asking for more empowerment from your elected leadership can be a bit tricky, says Whitney Walpole, a management consultant in Denver. She recommends that these staffers draw a chart listing areas where they'd like to make autonomous decisions in one column and the anticipated business results in the other.
Before presenting this logical argument, send a note to the board outlining your request. Then meet with a subsection of the board ahead of time to go over the details. "It's very difficult for an employee to convince a group of eight or 10--it usually doesn't go well," Walpole notes. "It works better if you have a group of cheerleaders within that larger group."