Julian Hutton on encouraging employees to use their brainpower

Julian K. Hutton, president, Merlin Hospitality Management

Julian K. Hutton, president, Merlin Hospitality Management

Most businesses profess a desire to have empowered employees who are able to think for themselves, who can handle issues on the spot without recourse to a long management chain, who look at the business as their own and thus come up with creative solutions and put them into effect.

Balancing it, and usually countering it, is the fear that if left to their own devices, their employees will make idiotic decisions that will have financial and public relations consequences of far greater detriment than any possible benefit. The result is a mixed message — “We sort of want you to be innovative, but don’t do anything that carries any risk of a negative outcome because we’ll be checking up on you.”

Small wonder so many employees aren’t eager to use their initiative.

How gratifying it is when one finds an exception. Traveling for business, I rent from my local Enterprise Rent-A-Car office. I am constantly impressed by their enthusiasm and professionalism, and most of all for their ability to make decisions on the spot. Not monumental decisions — I don’t expect them to be able to sign me over the registration of their cars or redesign the corporate logo, but certainly the sort of day-to-day issues that so many other companies make a big deal over.

They are able to make decisions that do have an effect on the income of the business and they are confident about using their initiative to bend the rules when common sense dictates.

Anyone who has ever brought a rental car back an hour late and been charged for an entire extra day will appreciate this. I always leave Enterprise feeling that I have been dealing with people I like, who like me, and most importantly who are on my side. Not, as could so easily be the case, with a large nervous rental car organization, one of whose $25,000 assets they are about to hand over complete control of to me for $35 a day. Consequently they are one of the few companies that I feel a genuine loyalty towards without any of the gimmicks of points and loyalty programs.

How do they and others like them achieve it? Most important, they trust their employees and let their employees know it, but not blindly. The key is for line managers and employees to feel confident about the kinds of decisions they can make. In order to do this, they need to know their limits, which should be as wide as reasonably possible, and to know they will be supported by the management chain.

These parameters need to fit into the company’s vision, be clearly laid out and be an ongoing part of their training. Poor managers are scared of losing control, so they give their employees no leeway to think for themselves. Terrible managers deliberately avoid giving their employees firm guidelines so that they can claim credit in success and apportion blame in failure.

Encouraging innovation and creativity in employees needs to be just one part of fostering a positive corporate culture in a well-led organization. Assuming most employees are neither thieves nor charlatans, that they are able to eat breakfast without stabbing themselves in the eye with a fork, bring up children without misplacing them, and make it into work without falling in front of a subway train, then they can probably be trusted to make decisions, and to come up with creative ideas in the interests of the company.

Demonstrating this level of trust, within reasonable boundaries, goes a long way to making employees feel they are doing something that is important, and that they are personally valued. That’s leadership.

Julian K. Hutton is president of Merlin Hospitality Management, where he oversees the company’s hotel management and distressed asset management operations, drawing on 20 years’ experience in the worldwide travel and hospitality industry. Reach him at [email protected].