Set the Employees Free. Notes on Joshua Strebel WCPHX Keynote presentation (Part 3)

To wrap up this series on my WordCamp Phoenix keynote, I’ve once again embedded the video below. In this post I will unpack a couple of new concepts and ideas from that talk. Catch up here with part one and part two.

Set the Employees Free

In a typical corporate hierarchy most, if not all, key decisions are made at the top and handed down to teams below for execution. Those teams are then held accountable for the outcome. If the idea was sound, and the execution successful, the executives at the top take credit and the world keeps going. If the idea itself was a poor one, regardless of the quality of execution, the team that was told to execute will likely take the brunt of the blowback, and the CEO will get a golden parachute as the company falls into bankruptcy. I’m kidding, that almost never happens.

Or in a different context, a lower level employee will be hamstrung and boxed into a tightly defined role with clear boundaries and permissions. They’ll be unable to adapt to edge cases or surprises, as the process they must follow is dictated by levels far above them.

In my eyes, this is the wrong way to run a company if your goal is to build a vibrant, forward-thinking organization powered by intelligent and engaged people.

What we have tried to do is give the authority to think and act to every member of our team, by trusting them to be the critical thinking and intelligent humans that we hired. As leadership and employees define the mission goals and take ownership of its execution together, multiple opportunities arise to sanity check ideas and revamp process before they are too far gone.

Trust is the mechanism that makes this work. Leadership has to trust in the training and cultural indoctrination of their employees to make wise decisions. Similarly, employees have to trust leadership to not micromanage and second guess their work. At that point, the responsibility and accountability for outcomes can be fairly judged and assigned.

For example, if your company screens for and hires competent support agents, then why not free them to help the customer thoroughly and effectively? Yes, this means you have to attract the caliber of talent you can feel comfortable with working off leash, be willing to pay them well, and be ok with the occasional learning mistake. The long term outcomes for the company and the customer will be more positive in the long run. A more skilled and capable team actually saves money in down the line and can drive additional revenue via increased customer satisfaction.

I do, however, realize this does not work at every company. McDonald’s can’t let every employee get creative in how to prepare, package, and deliver fast food to the customer — but most knowledge economy companies can adopt a bottom-up approach, and be more successful than otherwise.

This concept and others are found in the books below, which all share in common military themes in leadership, but each one also takes a critical look at the failings of top-down leadership and how it can be improved.

Team of Teams
Turn the Ship Around
Extreme Ownership

No Really, Set Them Free

Everyone has the best intentions and an employee’s journey with a company will be a long and fruitful one for everyone involved. Of course, we know that is not always the case. Strategic shifts, morale, the likelihood of advancement opportunities, culture, relocations… the list goes on of reasons why employees and companies part ways or stick together.

The situation that I think is the most dangerous is continuing the employment relationship with the employee that seems to waffle on the lines between mediocre and poor performance. In these cases we’ve always looked back and thought to ourselves we should have parted ways sooner. Hindsight is always that we did them and the company zero favors by delaying parting ways. In the larger context, we must consider the dozens of other families we are responsible for and put that greater good ahead of the discomfort of letting go a single worker.

While I did not mention the above specifically in this keynote, It’s been a common theme in my talks as it seems to be a mistake we often repeat. Get the right people on the bus, and the wrong people off it.

Take a look at my keynote in its entirety below, and please do follow up with thoughts and comments.

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