Outside the box Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2008

For Tim Westergren, the epiphany came when he realized how much time he was wasting in meetings that could have been handled without his input.

So the founder and chief strategy officer of Pandora Media Inc. began empowering his 125 employees to make decisions with the fewest number of people necessary.

“It’s contrary to the way a lot of companies are run, where there is a feeling that you’ve got to get everybody involved in every decision so people feel included and so forth,” he says.

The strategy has created a culture in which employees of the personalized online radio company establish strong bonds with the small groups they work with most often.

Smart Business spoke with Westergren about how to improve workplace efficiency and how to implement a major culture change at your company.

Q. How could another leader create a culture like yours?

The first thing that I would do is encourage the executive to take his company’s leaders — leaders I would define as anyone who manages a person — and dedicate some time off-site. Bring in some professionals and spend some time on the interpersonal part of your company.

Get to know your people and establish a different kind of relationship between you and your staff. It’s more personal and more intimate and open. Then, together, adopt this new approach to make them part of the process.

Then institute it and formalize it within your organization so that it becomes something that every employee goes through. Write it down together, and then the leaders must lead by example.

Q. How do you get to know your employees better?

There are professional management training folks whose profession it is to take teams and help them work together. They have many different methodologies for doing that, but you typically go off-site together, and they take the company through these various exercises where you share your own perspectives. You reveal things about yourself and you do psychological and emotional profiles together that help you understand each other and how and why you interact together the way you do.

It breaks down barriers between people. It’s like the equivalent of a managerial ropes course. You all go off and you bond.

It’s a form of conversation that doesn’t happen casually in the office. It really has to be done and moderated by an outside person.

Most people have a very hard time stepping out of themselves. Everybody brings to these situations their own biases and their own personalities. Very rarely can you actually recognize that.

A professional is good at doing that. And the nice thing about that is they will do it equally for the CEO as they will for a director. They have no bias one way or the other. That’s really important because it creates a level playing field as you start the exercise.

Q. How do you institutionalize the process?

When every new employee comes in, they sit down with every manager of the company and they are educated on those managers’ responsibilities in their departments. As part of that, they sit down with [CEO] Joe [Kennedy] and myself, and we go through Pandora principles. That is where all this sort of pedagogy is articulated.

Then we talk about it. We talk about decision-making not being personal. We talk about making decisions with the smallest number of people possible. It’s kind of like a crash course in the company culture.

It’s not something they’re going to absorb entirely immediately, but it’s a framework that helps them understand how and why the company operates as they get to know the company. It’s like a frame of reference to them.

Then, as part of your responsibility as a management team, you have to manage to that pedagogy. So you are setting up an expectation among employees, and the management team itself has to remind itself to revisit them regularly.

Q. How does employee empowerment benefit the company?

You become much more nimble. So you are able to make decisions quickly, which is important. You also make people’s work lives more efficient because they spend less time on the things they aren’t really needed for.

A lot of time in companies is spent trying to reduce the amount of information you get. This creates, ironically, the opposite problem, because if we err on any side, it’s not giving you enough information.

The flip side of this whole strategy is you have to be very proactive about informing people when you do make decisions — especially when you think a decision will impact them. But you don’t have the problem of spending all day long on administrative e-mails and reading stuff that’s just not important to you.

So it saves people time and makes them more efficient, which makes them happier. It also gives people a real sense of ownership.

HOW TO REACH: Pandora Media Inc., (510) 451-4100 or www.pandora.com