Learn to Unleash Your 'People Power'

I recently witnessed a commanding presentation on the concept of empowerment. While I practice empowerment in my own business, the presentation reminded me of its importance in all businesses.

Empowerment is not about giving power to people; it is about releasing the knowledge, experience and motivation they already have. For those companies that dare to try, the benefits can be significant. By releasing their employees' full potential and instilling a responsibility-

oriented environment, business managers will be able to better compete in today's "do more with less" business environment.

For small businesses like the majority of kitchen and bath dealers it's more important than ever to know how to empower employees. These firms can get the edge on "big boxes," which aren't able to empower employees because of their size and the fear of losing control. They have too many people and too much turnover to instill an empowered work culture. The "mom and pop" business, with fewer, longer-term employees, can. The big hurdle here is getting "mom and pop" to let go.

Redefining roles
The average kitchen and bath dealer has between four and eight employees. Usually, it's the owner who is the highest producing salesperson and the busiest designer, as well as the one who meets with all of the factory reps, makes all of the showroom display decisions and acts as the traffic cop and fireman. The employees are told what to do and when to do it. They can't make decisions on their own, but instead have to check everything with "the boss." This is control management. While it works to a degree it doesn't maximize the talents and motivation of the employees.

In an empowered organization, employees bring their best ideas and initiatives to the workplace with a sense of excitement, ownership and pride. In addition, the empowered employee will act with responsibility and will put the best interests of the organization first.

To create an empowered workplace, management's role in running the business must change from a command-and-control mindset to a responsibility-oriented and supportive environment in which all employees have the opportunity to do their best.

Letting go
I'll be the first to admit that empowerment can be a difficult concept to appreciate fully and even more difficult to implement. I like being in control. Heck, I was an officer in the Army, and regimentation and control is what I was taught. But, I also learned that, as my business grew and I wanted to have a life away from the business, I had to let my employees be creative, use their initiative and spread their wings yes, even make some decisions without checking with me. It takes guts on the part of the boss, but the results are astounding.

By giving people more information, greater autonomy and more responsibility, a company will be able to utilize the collective power of its people to achieve bigger and more profitable sales, better service, greater productivity and fewer mistakes.

Today's employees are more free-spirited and entrepreneurial. In order to harness all of their "horsepower," we have to let them run. Kitchen and bath customers want their contacts the front line employees to be able to make decisions, solve problems and take action right on the spot.

To begin, empowerment has to start at the top. If it doesn't, it won't go anywhere. So, all of you bosses out there take a step back and analyze how you're running your business. You've probably already figured out that you can't get it all done by yourself, so cut loose and encourage your employees to utilize the knowledge and motivation that they have stored up.

There are several steps that have to be taken to instill a sense of empowerment:

1. First, you have to share accurate information with everyone. This means sharing how the business is doing in terms of sales, profitability, productivity and yes, even the bottom line. I meet with my employees at least twice a year and do a "State of the Company" report. I don't divulge privileged information, but I do report whether sales are up or down a certain percentage, as well as whether the margin has climbed or slipped. I talk expenses and future plans. By sharing this information, I am empowering my employees to act as entrepreneurs within the company. People with accurate information will feel compelled to act responsibly.

2. Next, you have to create autonomy through boundaries. The owner/manager builds and clarifies the long- and short-term goals (the "big picture"), with input from everyone. He or she then translates the vision in roles and goals (little pictures). This is followed by defining values and rules (the boundaries) that underline the desired actions. When values are clear, decision-making is easier. Finally, "the boss" develops structures and procedures that empower people. This all takes time. It takes working together and getting used to.

3. The third step is replacing dictatorial thinking with self-managed teams. I love this part of running my business. Instead of sitting in my office all alone making every decision, we have weekly "staff meetings." Every meeting has an agenda and a facilitator. New ideas, new products, new direction everything is discussed with the team. Empowered teams can do more than empowered individuals. People don't start out knowing how to work in self-managed teams you have to show them. Teams with information and skills can replace the old dictatorial thinking.

While empowerment means employees will have the freedom to act, it also means they will have to be accountable for the results. Some results to look for when you start to practice empowerment and self-managed teams include: increased job satisfaction; an attitude change from "have to" to "want to"; greater employee commitment; better communication between employees and management; more efficient decision-making processes; improved quality; increased productivity; reduced operating costs; a more profitable organization; a happier organization, and getting a life back for the owner/manager.

Empowerment is one more tool you can use to be the very best kitchen and bath dealer (or manufacturer representative, or manufacturer, or distributor) in this great industry. Good Luck!