A friend of mine recently interviewed for a director position at a large, well-known technology company. The role involved a leading a small team on an important but modestly sized project. At the end of his interviewing day, he got to meet the CEO for 5 minutes. This CEO covered four things:
- Why the project was important to the company.
- Gave him a virtual budget. He could spend that budget on a small number of senior developers, a larger number of junior developers, capital equipment of his choosing or any combination thereof.
- Told him that if he succeeded, he’d get promoted. If not, they’d discuss how they’d improve next time.
- He should expect an offer that evening.
Put yourself in my friend’s position. Would you accept? Almost anybody I tell this story to says “YES!” without even really asking much more about the job, the company in question, or the “tech stack”, or anything else. Now ask yourself why. Why is this job offer so compelling? Why is this kind of offer nearly impossible to refuse?
It works because of something that everybody wants in a career, especially intelligent, type-A personalities. They want to feel empowered to do their best work. I choose these words carefully. There is a big difference between feeling empowered and the pursuit of power. The former happens when you have a company culture that seeks to maximize everyone’s abilities. The latter is something we associate with zero-sum corporate politics.
What made my friend’s story so compelling is both (a) the freedom but also (b) the trust the CEO is affording him, as well as the clear expectations they are setting for success (promotion). The CEO, in a further show of trust, explains an offer is coming in a few hours. My friend could not help but feel enormously flattered. The whole story reminded me of a quote I love from Maya Angelou.
But why does it take a new job for this to happen? If you’re in a leadership position and you aren’t thinking about how to make people feel empowered, you’re losing a big opportunity. And maybe some people. Employees who feel empowered are much more likely to do great work and ultimately much more faithful to the company and less likely to leave.
An easy complaint about the story might that the CEO had budget to both promise my friend resources, and the room to promote him. In other words, it’s easy to make people feel empowered. Just promise them lots of power! But it’s not that simple. In fact, often giving people power can simply make them feel overwhelmed or even set up for failure. So what’s the key?
A 2017 Salesforce study hints at some answers on employee empowerment. It asked employees at 1,500 businesses a simple question: “Do you feel empowered to do your best work?”. Only 36% said “yes”. The study dug further. Among those that answered “yes”, the study found two extremely strong correlated questions. Specifically, people who said that they “Felt like they belonged at their company” were 5.3 times more likely to feel empowered and even more powerfully people who said that “their voice was heard” were 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered.
In other words, in order for people to feel empowered they (a) need to be a great culture fit and (b) they need to feel heard.
We can keep unrolling from here. How do you achieve culture fit? Well, you probably need a detailed hiring plan that matches candidates to your company. If you’re still interviewing by asking the hardest logic puzzles, or with tired coding questions, you’re not going to get people who feel they belong. Companies are often paralyzed by how to build a world-class hiring plan, but there are systematic ways to get there. Ask yourself how much more talent you could attract if you hired people like the CEO in the story.
But what about “feeling heard?” That sounds nebulous and unattainable, right? It’s not. What you need are leaders and managers who know how to listen and how to provide meaningful feedback. Do your managers know how to do this? Or are you like most tech companies? Maybe your tech managers are simply smart engineers who got promoted to manager positions with no training whatsoever? A lot of times, tech manager training is seen a luxury item. Something you might do “some day”. But the evidence is right there in front of us: you simply won’t get the best out of people without it and you certainly won’t have happy employees.
If this is something that’s been on your mind, give us a call. Big improvements could be closer than you think.