On their own Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2009

If you need constant direction, you can’t be on James Lawrence’s executive staff.

The president and CEO of Oriana House Inc. immediately throws new employees into the fire to fend for themselves. He says that by giving people space to make their own decisions, you instill a sense of trust in them that is empowering, Lawrence says.

“You provide them the environments to become better employees, better managers and better leaders,” he says.

Empowering employees starts with outlining your expectations for them and making it clear that you trust their abilities. Secondly, you have to keep them in the know about what’s going on at the company to help them to make informed decisions. Find ways to allow your employees to make their own choices and work with them if their decisions backfire.

Giving employees the opportunity to grow and, in return, provide better service has allowed Oriana House — a nonprofit organization that treats chemical dependency and offers community corrections services — grow from a three-day-a-week program to a 24-7 treatment center with revenue of $32 million.

Smart Business spoke with Lawrence about how to step back and empower employees to act on their own.

Set expectations. You bring the people in because they’re experienced, and you tell them that you brought them in because they have the experience that you’re looking for and that you trust them to do the job.

Set the expectations of what the job is. Then, give them a larger box to operate in, knowing they can always come back to you for advice and planning. But expect them to do that less and less and make their own decisions.

Give employees information to help them make good decisions. I have seen over the years that sharing the information you have lets people know that you trust them.

What we have to do to empower them is to continue to meet with employees at all levels.

I meet with my executive staff and program staff for regular meetings, but I’m talking about the entire operation.

You have to provide your employees with information about the organization and what’s going on with the organization, outside influences on the organization and the impact on the organization.

What I often tell people is, ‘We don’t have any secrets.’ You want to let your employees know what’s going on in the organization and outside the organization because that helps them to better do their job as well as meet their expectations. And I’m talking about good things and bad things.

I meet with them and tell them what’s going on, and I encourage them. That way, you encourage input from them; you’re meeting with them. You want to listen to what they have to say in these meetings as well as let them know.

For example, last year, we did raises because I have a feeling we won’t do raises for at least this year and possibly next year. It’s better that they hear it from me saying, ‘Right now, our position is there wouldn’t be raises this year. That may change depending on what happens with our revenue and contracts and services.’

Empower employees to act on their own. If you talk to my employees, you’ll probably find out that some of them, especially on the higher levels of management, I don’t tell them a lot [about what to do]. I set them out there and see what they do. They can always come and check with me but empower them to make decisions but also to make mistakes.

Employees, managers, leaders — they all have to develop their own style on how to run various aspects of our organization, and my style doesn’t work for other people, necessarily, so I think they have to find their own.

Part of it is to allow them to make the decisions that are sometimes wrong. As a matter of fact, sometimes it’s good for me not to be around because I don’t want to stop them from making decisions.

As long as it doesn’t ruin the company, for example, I consciously let people do things that are wrong just because you learn a lot from that.

Let people do it their way. You have to do it by example. I don’t know how else you would do it. It’s almost like if you were always working in the same room with the boss, they do things a certain way and that’s how they would do it, and they almost can’t help themselves.

So if I was hanging around with you all day and you were working with me, I would almost feel like I’d have to jump in.

It’s hard sometimes, depending on your personality … to be able to step away and let them operate, even though you would do it differently.

That’s why sometimes it’s best not to be there. Sometimes, I’ll send people to meetings that, in the past, I might have gone to. I consciously don’t go there so they can’t look to me for the answers; they have to make the decisions and know that I trust them to go forward.

Otherwise, they tend to go back to me, what I would do. If I’m not there, they can’t ask that question.

You have to do it by example.

Work with employees when they make mistakes. If they do something that doesn’t work out, then we sit down and talk about that and redo it.

Go over it and restudy it, just so you can learn something from it.

How to reach: Oriana House Inc., (330) 535-8116 or www.orianahouse.org