SunRun promotes innovation by encouraging employee autonomy Featured

8:05pm EDT August 31, 2011
SunRun promotes innovation by encouraging employee autonomy

When Lynn Jurich and Edward Fenster co-founded SunRun Inc., they started out making all the decisions about the company themselves. However, when SunRun doubled in size in a matter of years, they quickly realized it was time to pass off some of those decisions to others.

“You really want to find that balance between providing a real, single and unified vision for the company but also giving enough decision-making push down and control down at the lower levels of the organization where people are really making the day-to-day decisions,” says Jurich, president of SunRun.

The “highly aligned, loosely coupled” culture Jurich and Fenster implemented at SunRun has been popularized by high-profile companies such as Netflix Inc. It is characterized by using strong top-down alignment to allow more freedom in employee decision-making.

“What it means is that everybody is very clear on what the big strategic goals are,” Jurich says. “They don’t have to be micromanaged. They don’t have to go check in with eight other different people. They don’t have to hold a staff meeting to make a decision. They can just feel empowered that, ‘OK, I know what the right decision is for the company, so I’m just going for it.’”

A major component of the approach is communication. While SunRun employs around 100 people, its sales force consists of hundreds more nationwide. To create strong alignment, Jurich estimates she spends 75 percent of her time communicating with her team to help articulate the vision and remove obstacles to employee success.

“That’s in weekly one-on-ones with people,” she says. “That’s in quarterly meetings. That’s in having really clear goals, division by division, that are communicative, that are written, that people can find easily just on their desktop. Then what that enables is for you to have a really loosely coupled decision-making process. Because everybody knows what the high-level corporate goals are, it’s easy for people to make decisions in their daily lives that are consistent with that.”

By maintaining strong alignment and communication on goals, Jurich is also able to make important decisions without always relying on consensus of the group.

“Sometimes there have to be decisions that get made, and when you’ve earned people’s respect, I think people prefer — at the least the feedback I’ve gotten is — people prefer operating in that type of an environment,” Jurich says. “Things can move fairly quickly because there’s somebody who is not afraid to make a decision to get us going, but everyone knows that their view and their viewpoint is going to be really heard, thought out and that we’re not making a decision with any sort of arbitrariness.”

It’s about never becoming a micromanagement, bureaucratic type of organization but cultivating trust by giving people more freedom, which keeps SunRun nimble and fast moving. Under Jurich’s leadership, the company is growing 500 percent per year and has expanded its offerings to eight states.

“In a lot of organizations where you have to set things up, where there are a lot of cross-departmental buy-in meetings, keeping people in agreement becomes really important,” she says. “And it kind of turns a little bit dangerous and inefficient. Whereas if people really trust each other and they’re clear on what the goals are, it gives individuals and smaller groups of people within the organization the ability to just be creative, move quickly and actually get things done. That’s how you stay innovative. When everything is you have to get internal buy-in and there are all these consensus-driven kinds of meetings, you lose the individual kind of spirit to really run with an idea.”

HOW TO REACH: SunRun Inc., (415) 982-9000 or www.sunrunhome.com

Consult and decide

As a leader, it’s important to have a leadership style that reflects the culture you want in your company.

“You have to adapt yourself over time to the needs of the organization,” says Lynn Jurich, president of SunRun Inc.

Jurich has adopted a “consult and decide” style, which allows her to make decisions inclusively yet independently and within the framework of SunRun’s highly aligned, loosely coupled culture.

“I would say it’s different for every decision,” she says. “I really like to go to the people who are on the ground, the people who are really seeing the day-to-day information from the customer, from the partner. … If you have the alignment that we are going for, they typically can give you the right decision.”

Furthermore, when people feel they’ve been heard and there’s been a rational decision-making process carried out, they are also more inclined to support a decision even when they don’t agree with it.

“It’s that ability to have the real strategic foundation and not be afraid to share that and make tough decisions,” she says. “People want to see that out of the leader. They want to see somebody who is going to make the tough calls and who really has an authentic basis to make those decisions.”