How to Empower Your Employees

I just returned from a 3-week trip to England! My best friend got married at Stonehenge and then Michael and I took off to gallivant across the country.

(Michael put me on his shoulders to see)

(buying wedding make-up in London!)


(Coca Cola in London = Diet Coke in America)

In the meantime, we have a project under some major “external” deadlines that has also come under speculation by the City for zoning (I’ve been dying to tell you all about it. Hopefully by spring I can give you a recap – perhaps a video montage?); a project in the throes of MEP and framing; and a project just beginning demo. Did I mention it’s also 90F outside on a daily basis? Basically, this means that while I’m gone, the show must go on…

This creates a dilemma. I’ll be honest, folks – delegation is not my strong suit. I am really great at listening to opinions, heeding advice, and modifying strategy according to input from my team and outside sources. In the past, however, I was charged with delegating responsibility on several occasions and – to make a long story short – it didn’t get done or it didn’t get done to my standards. Having to manage a team was one of my biggest fears about venturing into my start-up. I also felt a tremendous amount of self-imposed pressure to be a great manager because I have had the privilege of working under a great manager for many years. If I cannot learn from a great leader, then how can I expect to lead greatly? The fact that one of my core principals is to maintain a small team only encourages me to stay in the day-to-day trenches of decision making. Even with only two simultaneous projects, I can see that I’m setting myself up to fail – I can’t do it all and, quite honestly, I’m less qualified than my team to do it all. I have a fantastic, hand-picked team, and I have other responsibilities to attend – such as finding more projects so we can all stay employed.

So, I saw this vacation as a perfect opportunity to delegate and empower. I thought back to the many conversations with my old manager – the tid bits, the full discussions, the sidebars – and here are my ideas:

How to Empower Your Employees

1. Don’t Be Defensive.

“Send me your personal goals: short and long-term.” It was a 3-year plan. I was there 4-5 years.

Look, your employees can leave you at anytime. They can find a new opportunity, they can have a major family change, they can become a celebrity overnight from a Youtube video. Don’t withhold anything from your employees for the sake of the unknown. If Sebastian left me, it’d be a crippling experience to recover from – it’d be even more difficult to bear if the reason he left is because he felt I was holding back on him. That would make his absence my fault.

2. Hire Employees Smarter Than Yourself.

“I’m not about to review you on how to improve your job – we had goals, you exceeded them – and you know better than I do on what needs to happen next year.” – What else could I do? The next year I worked even harder.

When I’m faced with a decision that needs to be made, I ask my employees: “What do you think?” and allow my answer to hinge on their answer. Not that I don’t ask questions, not that the conversation doesn’t veer in a different direction, not that the ultimate decision isn’t different than the initial answer. It’s simply that I need their input to feel confident that I’m making the right moves. It’s important that they are part of the conversation because I do not presume to know more than them. Hire experts, you cannot possibly be an expert at every aspect of your company (unless you’re in the circus..most likely, you’ll still need an elephant who never forgets).

3. Compliment Often.

“Your ability to take an idea and create a world surrounding it is nothing short of incredible.”  *purrrrrr*

A respectful employee is rarely a cocky one. My mom can recall every single bank transaction in her records – do you know how many hundreds of receipts I have from this season alone? It’s not just “thank you”, it’s “you’re awesome!”; “OMG this is gorgeous! The detail here is fantastic,” “excellent work.” “you saved my ass today.” I am not saying find something to compliment your employees about, I’m saying that when a compliment is warranted, give one…and don’t be stringent on what warrants a compliment. In my experience, when I’ve given a compliment, the answer is “Thank you,” with a smile and not “So pay me more money.” Also, it’s important that your compliments have worth – be specific and only say it if you mean it – if you don’t believe the compliment is worth it, it will likely end up sounding insulting to your employees.

4. Get a Long Rope. 

“Usually, if I delegate the responsibility without micro-managing, I get way more back than I asked for,”

You need to give enough rope for your team to hang themselves. If you don’t give enough slack, they don’t have enough room to impress you. Of course, mistakes are inevitable. It’s part of the process – no pain, no gain. So, don’t be a dictator and don’t be an executioner. Demand lessons learned, not retribution.

5. Take the Rap. 

“…I told him that we miscalculated and will resolve this. I also told him to take this up directly with me, not you. That’s not fair.” For the record, I was personally 100% responsible for the mistake.

If there was one reason I was fiercely loyal to my old boss, it was because he was fiercely loyal to me. When a client is complaining about an employee, it is tempting to keep the conversation about that employee. It is better to keep the conversation in present tense – your client wants to see responsibility taken and they want to see recovery. It’s all about recovery. You’re the boss, the buck stops with you – act like it. Present a unified front and you’ll project professionalism. The second a client feels that one employee is favored over another (e.g. owner vs. manager), you have created poison and poison can be insidious.

6. Money Talks.

If you have it, give it. You had better be giving something more every year, regardless. If you’re empowering your employees, then you should be able to afford more – both for them and yourself.

When I returned from England, the sub-contractors were happy, the bills were paid, at least one house was air conditioned, and my mom and Sebastian seemed happier that they were communicating so often.

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