How to empower employees without losing direction

Letting people make their own decisions can't be an excuse to abdicate your own leadership, says Mark Cridge, CEO of mySociety.

Last Updated: 29 Oct 2019

Many of the most successful businesses in the world make a virtue of empowering their people, for two good reasons. On a cynical level, it’s great for attracting talent, particularly of the millennial variety. More importantly (one would hope), empowerment works, because it allows the organisation to benefit from the full skills and ideas of its people without the stifling effects of bureaucratic inertia.

Or, at least, it can work. Empowerment can also fail miserably, if there’s a dysfunctional culture and a lack of leadership.

For the 18th century mill owner in all of us, this can pose a thorny question. How can we allow the people who work for us to make their own decisions without abdicating at least some of our leadership responsibilities?

This comes down to what leadership actually is. Empowerment makes sense only when you view leadership as being essentially about people (providing them with a clear vision, motivating them, challenging them to perform better etc) rather than being about making all the decisions.

So what’s a leader to do when they want to implement empowerment, but aren’t exactly sure where to start?

Mark Cridge is chief executive of civic tech charity mySociety, which provides services to improve democratic participation, such as TheyWorkForYou, which helps people to identify their MP and their voting record, and FixMyStreet, where they can report problems such as potholes and fly tipping to the council.

He defines his leadership style around the need to ‘make space’ for his employees.

"I first learned about the effectiveness of ‘making space’ when I was running a large advertising agency, when I realised the importance of hiring people with more expertise than yourself and giving them the freedom to operate effectively.

"My title is chief executive, but while it’s useful externally, it doesn’t really describe how we work. My role is that of a participant among a group of people who regard themselves as peers. I’m also responsible for strategic direction, working with the board, ensuring everyone has the resources they need, and supporting career development. This means that externally I’m the figurehead, but internally I’m just another contributor.

"To make this work, everyone needs to know what our priorities are. If I see something contrary to the type of outcome we want, we have ways of getting back on track. Using agile working makes mistakes less severe and easier to correct. We run a two-week sprint process with discussion upfront about what work to take on, daily stand-ups, and review and reflection at the end, so work is self-regulating and there are plenty of opportunities to bring things back on track and avoid any blind alleys.

"My predecessor also understood the need to make space, and he did two great things for me before he left. Firstly, he closed services that were coming to the end of life or were no longer appropriate. 

"Second, he actually left – no sitting on the board or extended handover. This made it easier for me to set fresh priorities. We then worked as a team to make more decisions. We needed to showcase our work more clearly to attract funders and commercial partners, which required everyone’s input.

"Remote working and digital technology are now part of how most organisations work. This means the CEO no longer needs to be a superhero, leading from the front and being involved in every decision. Today, the role is all about ‘making space for the right things to happen’."

Image credit: mySociety


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