Preparing your people Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2009

Empowering employees starts with giving them the right tools to succeed, says Stan Bunting.

“Empowerment is always a concept people are readily willing to say, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’ But you can’t empower someone just by giving them new responsibilities and not spend the time to prepare them,” Bunting says.

As president, CEO and majority owner of McCoy Inc., Bunting says there’s a two-step process to empowering employees. First, you train them. Second, you have to allow them to learn by making mistakes.

Bunting has put those steps in place at McCoy, with many of his 350 employees going through in-house training courses or mentoring programs. Annual performance appraisals allow the office furniture company to put employees with management promise on a career training path, learning finance and leadership skills. Newer employees learn the ropes next to their own mentor.

By both formal and informal training, Bunting essentially grows his own employees at McCoy, which posted 2008 revenue of $121 million.

Smart Business spoke with Bunting about training employees to meet your company’s needs.

Carve out time for training. The person that is being given greater latitude, whether it’s greater latitude in their job function or decision-making or whatever, really should be told that’s what is happening. There is a process, and there should be a certain amount of training and preparation prior to greater empowerment.

There’s formal training, where there are very specific steps involved, and then there is the softer side of training that is more of a mentor relationship between the person who is growing in their job responsibilities and the person who is allowing them to grow.

If you’re going to build curriculum, you have to get experts that understand how to build a curriculum. We used an outside service.

I have taught those classes to begin training in soft skills. We sent six of our leaders here to training. It was a ‘train the trainer’ kind of an approach. Then, we came back, and with a cross-section of the population, we would go through formal training classes.

Most companies are working at a very efficient level, which means your people don’t have a lot of extra time to go to training classes. If all you do is add this on top of everything else that they have to do, it’s going to be very difficult for them to get it done.

You’ve got to give them the time to go to training and apply some of the things that must be applied. You’ve got to block it out for them. You’ve got to take them out of the work pool for a certain amount of time to give them time to go to training. It’s not a nights-and-weekends type thing; it’s not fair.

Mentor your employees. Formal training is not very successful without the mentoring. Many times, formal training only gives us a language, which we’re both working in to be able to discuss these things. A lot of the actual training comes in real-life experiences.

Both parties have to be fully engaged. It cannot be something you’re going to do when there’s time left over, and it can’t be something that you’re going to do just by happenstance. You have to be thoughtful about it, and you have to (plan) it, and you have to make sure you’re really making the investment in time — both parties.

For example, in the sales relationship, we put junior salespeople with senior salespeople, and those people are the mentors for the junior sales rep. They go out on calls with them, they understand how to enter orders, they get involved in pricing.

They do it as peer-to-peer relationship, not as a management-level person to someone else in the organization.

Once you’ve done some mentoring, you give them a chance to go work on their own. You see how they handle their mistakes and answer their own questions. When they’re able to kind of ride that bicycle without the training wheels, then they’re ready. But it’s a judgment call. You have to eventually allow them to take a risk and let them go.

Encourage risk-taking. The second component has more to do with the person that has decided to empower another individual. I think the leader that has decided to empower another employee in his business has to be willing to take a little bit of risk, because if they don’t, it’s really not empowerment, it’s micromanagement.

We talk a lot in training in our management group here about not micromanaging. Set large goals, set large metrics and measure those, but don’t measure the minutiae. There’s a lot more learning that goes on when you allow people to solve problems on their own instead of constantly checking in.

If you’ve done the proper training and the proper preparation, then you’ve got to be willing to let them make mistakes as they try new things. Let them learn, and help them learn from those mistakes.

It’s OK to take risks and make mistakes because that’s how we learn from them. You can say that all day long. You can state it in your values, but you also have to demonstrate that. When someone makes a mistake, you can’t then go in and punish them.

You should go in and work with them, and help them learn why the mistake was made and so on. But it should be done in a very constructive manner, in helping them build and learn, not in a punitive manner.

How to reach: McCoy Inc., (713) 862-4600 or www.mccoyinc.com