Updated: Jul 15
“A leader is great not because of his or her power, but because of his or her ability to empower others.” This quote comes from author John C. Maxwell. I believe it’s a great quote and it has helped shape my professional purpose to empower people to deliver results. The quote stirs your emotions and makes us think of leaders in our lives who have empowered us. Unfortunately, most leaders don’t live up to the greatness of the quote.
Why does this matter? What is the current situation which prompts us to consider making a change? As I shared in my previous post, the trends from PMI’s Pulse of the Profession shows a flat line of ~55% success on projects over the past decade. This shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone in our industry. We can do better than a coin flip on projects and we should explore new solutions for how we deliver. One solution is to empower our people. Give our project managers and project teams the authority to succeed!
It’s common practice for executives to proclaim, our people are our greatest asset. Yet, when I work with my clients, I rarely find actions to match the words. I see layers of bureaucracy and process handcuffing peoples at all levels of the organization. I see organizations driven by top-down leaders whose actions clearly speak “do as I say.” How do we break this cycle? Where can we look for examples of successful organizations empowering people? How can empowered project teams deliver better results?
First let’s explore the military. You said, “The military?!?” Why would we look to the military for examples of empowered people? Aren’t the troops just following orders, void of thinking? That is often the impression we civilians have but consider this quote from General Patton, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” There is a principle in the military called Commander’s Intent which essentially means focus on what needs to get done and leave the how it gets done to those on the front line. Contrast that with how direction is given in corporations across the world. We’ve all been in situations where our boss is hovering over our shoulder asking, “why are we doing it that way, why don’t you do it like this?” Under our breath we are screaming STOP MICROMANAGING ME!
The success of the US military is built upon 1) trust within teams, 2) creating a common culture, 3) being disciplined in execution, 4) accepting risk, 5) understanding the mission and 6) Commander’s Intent(1). Each soldier understands their role and trusts their team to deliver on their respective outcomes. The teams are trained to be successful and empowered to accept reasonable risk to achieve the mission. In our corporate world we do almost the reverse of this on our projects.
We generally build project teams by pulling people out of their regular job. We don’t train them on being a project team member. They have not established trust within the team and often they are competing against one another for promotional opportunities and compensation. The project objective is rarely shared by leadership. We establish rigid process we must follow and when something outside of process occurs, we ask for someone to revise the process or establish a new one. We aren’t focused on the outcome, the mission. Our focus is on the process and ensuring we’ve adhered to it, so we’ll be able to pass the next gate review.
Also, organizations usually bring the team to the project rather than the project to the team. That is opposite of how work is done in the military. We often hear of elite special forces missions such as the one conducted by Seal Team 6 to kill Osama bin Laden. When that mission, or project, was approved they didn’t select different operators from different teams to come together for a one-time project. No, they went to an existing team and gave them the mission. The team had already established roles, trust, and confidence to be successful.
Commander’s Intent and bringing the project to the team are great examples of how we can learn from the military to empower people to deliver results. We can also look to the corporate world to find organizations succeeding by empowering their resources.
An example within the corporate world is Ritz-Carlton. As you know Ritz-Carlton is a luxury hotel with customers who expect a level of service to align with the luxury price being paid. To help meet these expectations Ritz-Carlton has empowered their “ladies & Gentlemen” or as we commoners call them, employees. Ritz-Carlton does not shy away from sharing their culture of empowerment. In fact, it is on their website and you can read it here - https://ritzcarltonleadershipcenter.com/2019/03/19/the-power-of-empowerment/
Their policy allows each Lady & Gentleman at The Ritz-Carlton, at all levels, are empowered to spend up to $2000 per guest, per incident. The amount isn’t as important as is the message is sending to their employees - You are empowered to satisfy our customers. From their website, “The $2000 amount is worth a lot, both financially and symbolically. And the symbolic part is what’s truly important. It shows how much we trust our Ladies & Gentlemen. It’s how much we trust them to do the right thing, how much we trust them to resolve a guest issue well, and how much we trust them to always think of creative and memorable ways to elevate the experience.”
Has this policy paid off for Ritz-Carlton? For the 5th consecutive year they have been ranked the #1 luxury hotel brand in guest satisfaction by JD Power(2). This obviously isn’t a fluke as it is 5 years running for them. Empowering the Ritz-Carlton Ladies & Gentlemen is delivering results and with that comes repeat business, industry recognition, and satisfied employees.
We have success stories to point to both in the military and the corporate world where empowering people delivers results. We should explore opportunities to follow their lead with our project teams. We see this more within Sales teams than we do on the delivery side. I’ve attended several executive level meetings where the CEO declared, I don’t care how you get it done, but hit your sales goals by the end of the quarter.
Imagine if we empowered our deliver teams the same as we do sales. Imagine if we provide Commander’s Intent to our delivery teams. Imagine if we organized our teams to bring the work to them as is done in the Military. Now, let’s stop imagining and let’s start doing. Let’s empower our people to deliver results!