Leading by letting go

People support best what they help build

As others followed, central IT's billings grew dramatically. Over the next 18 months, the unit costs for IT services fell to a point lower than it had been in years. More importantly, a good chunk of our IT professionals were demonstrating pride in their work, and creative ideas were flowing.

What I learned

"Empowerment" is one of those terms that are so overused that they don't keep our attention for very long. Instead of employing it, I would sum up the lesson of this experience this way: Managers are served very well when they work to provide an environment where creativity can routinely happen.

What are the elements of such an environment? I believe only four basic things need to be in place:

  • Employees who have the right skills and experience for their jobs and whom you have invested in and trained so that they feel respected and know that you trust them.
  • A clear and unambiguous goal.
  • Accurate and timely information that is routinely provided to employees so they know where they stand with respect to attaining their goals.
  • A fault-tolerant standard of behavior at all management levels.

Each of these elements is important, but the last one is key. You will see no creativity from your employees unless they know with certainty that mistakes are not fatal to careers. They need to feel safe and know there is little or no risk associated with being creative. In fact, a mistake made by a trusted and experienced employee who has taken initiative on behalf of a client's need can be invaluable when the situation's lesson is openly shared.

I've also found that creative organizations are more flexible, move much faster and are much more competitive. When decisions for action can be made at the lowest levels of the management hierarchy, the client isn't forgotten and things happen a lot more responsively on their behalf.

Some in upper management fear this kind of environment and are loath to let go of any amount of power. Their knowledge and insight got them where they are, so surely they are the ones best qualified to make all decisions. To them, I'd like to pose two questions:

1. Would you rather be served by an autocratic or a creative organization? 2. Which would you rather work in?

After all, one way of looking at leadership was expressed by Mahatma Gandhi, who once pointed to a crowd and said, "There go my people. I am their leader. I must catch them."

Al Kuebler was CIO at AT&T Universal Card, Los Angeles County, Alcatel and McGraw-Hill, and director of process engineering at Citicorp. He also directed the consulting activity for CSC Europe. He is now a general management and IT consultant and graduate school lecturer at NYU, De Paul and UCLA . He can be reached at tyvol@mac.com.

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