Before Ken Holsclaw founded Phase 3 Media LLC, he was continually astounded by the lack of authority given to employees.
“When I would need to get a decision on something, I would go to my boss, who would go to their boss, who would go to their VP,” he says. “It takes a week and a half, and by the time I get an answer, the client is already gone. It just infuriated me.”
Holsclaw swore that if he ever had his own business, he’d give his employees freedom to make their own decisions, and he has done exactly that as president of Phase 3, a 50-employee printing company with more than $6 million in revenue.
Smart Business spoke with Holsclaw about how to empower your employees without disrupting the levels of management.
Q. How do you get input from employees?
Every year in December, we have a formal employee feedback form that we give out to all employees. In a confidential nature, they put down everything that they like and don’t like about company. Management reads over that, and we act on it. That’s the way we try to make things better.
We also have a suggestion box where employees can confidentially put suggestions to be discussed in company meetings. We try to take action on the different suggestions that are brought up.
Other than that, it is constantly talking to everyone and making it clear to everyone that it’s OK when you’ve got something on your mind to come talk about it. I’ve made it very clear with the management team — ‘Guys, you want to encourage your team members to communicate back with you. If they have an idea, share it. If they have a problem, share it.’
Now, it has to be done in a professional and correct way. If a team member has a problem with something, they need to pull you aside in a one-on-one setting.
Q. How do you encourage communication while avoiding chain-of-command problems?
As long as it’s done in a professional, respectful manner, I absolutely constantly am talking about and encouraging employees to speak up. When they’ve got an issue on their mind, let’s get it out in the open and discuss it.
If the president or the CEO is going around talking to the front-line troops and asking them questions, asking them, ‘Do you have open communication with your manager?’ if the answer is yes, great. If the answer is no, you have to sit down with the manager. There needs to be a lot of follow-up.
Q. How do you ensure your team is following up?
You’ve got to be hands-on. There’s a fine line between hands-on and micromanaging. I am very big on the philosophy of teach, support, empower and hold accountable. Teach your folks what to do, give them all the support in the world, train them. You’re there for them. You help them, then you empower them.
Most companies and most managers do not empower their people. In other words, you’re holding somebody responsible for cooking dinner, but you don’t allow them to buy the groceries.
Around here, you empower people. You let people buy their own groceries if you’re going to hold them accountable for dinner. Most organizations will teach and support. But they fall down on empowering and holding accountable. They fail to empower their employees and they don’t hold them accountable to the level that needs done.
Q. How can a CEO do a better job of empowering employees and holding them accountable?
You give them authority. Give them the ability to make decisions. Now that doesn’t mean you walk away from them, close your eyes and come back two months later.
I was in corporate America for years, and it just blew me away, the lack of authority people had in an organization. You had people at the director and VP level, paid lots of money, but they don’t have the authority to make decisions. All that does is slow everything down underneath them.
Governing is about making choices. The second you make a choice on something, there will be some people who are happy with it and some people who are not happy with it. However, if you have been consistent in your decisions, the people who don’t like the decision may not like it, but if you are always consistent and you treat them fairly, they may not like your decision but they will respect it.
Q. How do you know if an employee is ready for more responsibility?
Monitor their actions. Observe how they conduct themselves, how they behave in certain situations and how they react in certain situations. Ask them questions in meetings like, ‘What would you do? How would you handle this?’ A lot of empowering is showing confidence in them.
Some people have never been given decision-making power, so they have no confidence in making decisions. You have to tell them, ‘This is your decision. What are you going to do?’
Then, they make the decision. If it turns out OK, it gives them confidence.