When I think about my personal management philosophy, the common idea throughout my career is “Empowerment”. When I titled this post I didn’t want to call it Employee Empowerment or Management Empowerment because I believe once you have an understanding on what and how to use this concept of “Empowerment”, you’ll be able to use it additionally outside of a traditional work environment.
My goal with this post is to give my definition of empowerment as well as narrate an example of when I used it in a work environment and in a social/education environment.
So what is Empowerment? For me, it’s simply means giving employees the tools and knowledge to handle situations at the closest level of an interaction. With a bit of self actualization, you can also use this empowerment idea for yourself. Understanding the issue at the closest possible point helps to lay out a bedrock for these challenges we see in traditional business interactions and managerial responsibilities.
One of the most interesting ideas I read lately was how organizations exist to serve human needs rather than the converse. Focusing specifically on parks, recreation and tourism (PRT) management, our organizations generally exist for people whether that’s defined as our customer, guests or clients and our co-workers. To retain our clients, we give the tools to our first line employees to fix any guest issues without having to wait for managerial approval. This is employee empowerment.
A bit of my background to understand how this the concept of empowerment became central to my management philosophy.
The absolute vast majority of my career has been in the Information Technology field and I've have held almost all positions. This began when I was just starting in the U.S. Air force as a part time data entry clerk for aircraft and aircrews, to working with local companies such as major health care provider, a public school district to my final IT position as Application Development Manager for a local finance software development company. In hindsight, my implementation of managerial employment was more the concept of being a barrier between my employees and upper management. Basically to let them do their work and get out of their way.
That type of environment works well in software development but not so much in a guest service field such as park, recreation and tourism. But it was as an Application Development Manager in software that accidently had the biggest change in my career and understanding of empowerment.
In 2008, a good family friend asked if I would like to visit their daughter who was interning at Walt Disney World. We left in November and upon arriving I fell in love with Florida…. Especially the warm weather. After returning to the airport scrapping ice off my car in 12 degree weather, the following day I call my boss to let them know I was moving to Florida.
Six months later I bought a house and was writing code poolside. My upper management leadership gave me the tools (both literal and support) that empowered me to manage my team from two time zones away. Their belief in employee empowerment made the balance between work and home experience successful for over two years. An experience I gain a lot of knowledge from.
Unfortunately, with the financial collapse of the economy and government voiding our client banking contracts, the company had to cut positions and one was mine. But, it actually led to the biggest career change of my life and furthered my education and strong belief in employee empowerment.
I decided to work for the Disney corporation at Walt Disney World. I applied for several IT positions but wasn’t getting back the response I wanted. Instead they invited me to be on the opening team of a new operations project the company was introducing to their theme parks. I accepted thinking it would at least get my foot in the door with the company. Like most people, I had always heard about their legendary guest services and was a bit apprehensive working in a new world so different from IT.
What I learned and had an opportunity to use several times each day was empowerment. The keys to this legendary guest service is to train employees how to solve guest questions and complaints the first time. Rarely did I run into a situation I couldn’t handle quickly or with minimal supervisor approval. Even when I became a supervisor, I was only called to handle the most difficult interactions. The level of interactions with guests was so completely different than anything I ever experienced in the corporate IT world. Within just a relatively short time period, I knew I would no longer be fulfilled working strictly in the IT world.
In my introduction I alluded to using empowerment in social interactions. The best example actually happened during my first semester at the University of Utah. Our hospitality department was assigned to create a social event for charity.
I think because I’m not a traditional student I tend to observe interactions of social groups. The first time our hospitality group meet to discuss what our program was actually going to be, several small groups had already formed before any ideas were actually presented. Through observation I could see some groups already had more social empowerment than others. Although this is expected according to Tuckman's teaming model, I tried to remind everyone all ideas have validity but the social empowerment equity for everyone was already storming.
Less than a half an hour into the discussion, groups had already in camped themselves into either wanting a large program or smaller more intimate program. Since there was little consensus, we decided to do a basic storyboard idea exercise I was very familiar with while working for the Disney corporation. We split a white board into a who section and a what section. Sections for designating which group to help and what type of event to hold. Every team member was tasked to write under each section two groups and two activities.
As a group we discussed the feasibility of each idea and removed them one by one until we had our one group and one activity. At the end of the class we had our program. Bowling… for veterans. Nobody was going surfing.
I consider myself a fairly good storyteller, but even with all my experience and background, I could not figure out a way to make ‘bowling for veterans’ an option. If I was having that issue, then most likely others in the group were also. I confirmed this with several other students but no one in these groups wanted to address it. There was no empowerment left.
With my managerial experience, I knew the program would not be successful if no one had any investment in it. Bowling for veterans had to go. The challenge was how to give everyone empowerment again. The answer was to offer myself up as not having faith in the program. Once the issue was open for discussion, everyone now had a sense of social empowerment and new ideas and conciliations could be presented with equity to the group.
Even though there were still issues we continued to iron out, as a group we were able to perform a successful program. This is an example of why I believe empowerment is so important in non-business or traditional managerial roles. And why sometimes you yourself have to step up and take a leadership role to not necessarily give, but to remind others that they have empowerment to express their ideas.
What I’ve hope to demonstrate in the posting is I believe empowerment as a managerial philosophy is a key requirement for success in any organization. Whether it be the direct business related empowerment as I experienced working for the Disney corporation or the social empowerment demonstrated in our Hospitality event program. When you learn and execute the concepts of empowerment, you are more likely to have the positive outcome you are looking for.