Who would you miss first, the cleaner or the boss?

Lead by intent if you want to empower your people.

by Graeme McCracken
Last Updated: 25 Jun 2020

All of the 400 colleagues in our business are specialists. Collectively they know more about our products, tech and highly technical markets than it’s possible for any one person to know, particularly a leader that was new to the industry. 

It’s a realisation that could have been overwhelming. For me, it’s been liberating.

It’s opened up a leadership style that was summed up perfectly by Captain David Marquet, a former submariner who turned around the fortunes of the US Navy’s worst performing nuclear submarine by refusing to give orders.

Captain Marquet instead adopted intent-based leadership, treating his crew as leaders in their own right – after all, they are the specialists – and giving control rather than taking it. 

In other words, he empowered the experts, who in turn empowered their own team of experts.

It’s helping me to solve the real leadership conundrum of how you open up the range of talent that sits all around you. For me, this means flattening and inverting the leader-follower pyramid so that the entire team – from cleaner to CEO – is fully involved in driving the business forwards. 

Surrounded by experts as I am, I’ve tried to create an environment where people contribute and feel valued – where everyone is a leader. Intent-based leadership can get quite uncomfortable but I’ve found there are ways to make it work. Here are my tips:

Be clear about your role 

For people to feel valued and proud of being something bigger than themselves, it’s essential a leader is clear about their own role. In my case, that’s meant being disciplined and stepping back from the day-to-day, even those elements I really enjoy. 

No one is going to feel empowered if their boss is hovering in the long grass. A leader’s purpose is to set the organisation’s strategic direction and help staff to deliver on it and to listen more than they talk - a challenge for any leader.

Empower your business

If you’re expecting people to deliver, you need to ensure they understand the organisation’s strategy and objectives; then work with the experts to drive the business towards those goals. In my case, that’s meant stripping away bureaucracies to open the company up, as traditional top-down hierarchies are hugely inefficient and self-constraining. 

In times of crisis and change – like the COVID lockdown – an intent-based approach has delivered returns that have left me inspired and proud of my entire team.

Value expertise and diversity

Every business is full of brilliant and diverse individuals, who together create the fundamental conditions for innovation and accelerated business growth. 

But sometimes a change in approach is needed to unlock it. Intent-based leadership helps to create an agile, entrepreneurial businesses with an ethos that celebrates diversity of thinking.

Trust in intent

Empowerment for all sounds scary. But the real risk comes from a blame culture that the leader-follower hierarchy encourages. An organisation’s success is dependent on everyone in the business, not just the ‘leaders’. 

Pushing control and decision-making throughout the organisation really does make for an inspired workforce. Fear is not motivational, so banish the blame culture. Instead, if you're fair and trust in your team’s intent, then that trust will be rewarded ten-fold.  

In order to develop, embrace discomfort 

Playing it safe isn’t really an option in our digitally accelerated world. In fact, a lack of mistakes belies a lack of ambition and limits your team and your business’s growth.  You have to make your teams a little uncomfortable, to stretch them and allow them to develop. With a safety net under them, each time you stretch them they develop a little more. 

If you get this right, eventually it creates a company that drives its own innovation and growth, that has a culture of respect despite you no longer giving any orders. The teams are driving the business and the entire team (including the cleaner) is far more valuable than the CEO. 

This is an approach based on a willingness to let go. For many leaders, that’s counter-intuitive and giving up control is not easy. But it is the right thing to do – it just requires a different way of thinking about leadership, putting your trust in the real experts in your business. For me that’s meant working to empower the whole team – not just the senior leadership team. 

Finally, whether you are a developer, a sales person, a CEO, or submarine captain, the old adage still rings true: if you can’t be replaced, you can’t be promoted, so see great talent as an opportunity, not a threat.

Trusting people’s intent and their skill, and unlocking their development, will foster enthusiasm and innovation throughout your business - your entire organisation takes ownership and will drive your business growth so you all reap the rewards.

Graeme McCracken is  managing director of Proagrica

Image credit: Stocktrek Images via Getty Images


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