Helping Them Reach Their Purpose; Talkin’ Ain’t Enough!

I’ll say it once more, just in case you’ve drifted off… Leading a team effectively is hard! And so is being a great team member, staying engaged and working toward the organization’s goals and purpose. Just like having a clear purpose helps fuel those of us who have accepted responsibility for leading, helping our team members work toward an equally clear purpose of their own can be the difference between them finding real work/life harmony and them burning out because they’re out of balance. Providing the support they truly need, rather than just lending a hand to make the immediate task easier, often boils down to something I’ve heard a lot of individuals in leadership roles as well as entire organizations preach about doing but fall far short in the follow through. And by the way, I’m intentionally not referring to those individuals as leaders - regardless of what their job title is - as they make claims that aren’t backed with action!

In many cases, the support our team members need more than any physical help we provide is in empowering them to push forward toward their own definite purpose. There will certainly be times where the growth they experience in the process will move them beyond their current role, but that often provides us with an opportunity to utilize their new skills in other roles as we work together to achieve our organizational purpose. That authentic empowerment also shows them how much they’re valued, adding to their willingness to go above and beyond the normal call of duty. Here’s where I could easily reference how engaged employees give as much as 57% more discretionary effort, but I’m guessing you get the point!

The biggest challenge I’ve seen in doing this though has been how frequently that empowerment word is thrown around. Sometimes there’s little, if any, action backing it. And I’ve also experienced a few scenarios where the person in charge has taken an active role to prevent the team members reporting to them from being anything resembling empowered!

The last year or so I worked in manufacturing, the corporate global quality policy (which doubled as the mission statement) was this: “Delivering customer satisfaction with empowered employees using continuous improvement to get it right the first time, every time.” Cindy and I frequently share a keynote session called Building Buy-In Around a Clear Mission & Vision where I do all I can to explain how effective this could have been had said “empowered employees” been provided with a clear understanding of how the things they did tied back to any of it. I won’t hash that out again here, but I will share just how seldom you would have ever heard someone say they felt empowered in that environment. I can’t speak for every location that company had around the world, but the site I worked at operated on some extremely tight purse strings and was governed by detailed operating procedures to achieve highly scrutinized quality specifications. To say there was little room for individual discretion in much of what anyone did on any given day would be quite the understatement. With so many procedures in place to guide basically every action taken, where would you say empowerment came into the equation?

If I’m being brutally honest, I’m convinced that phrase was added to the quality policy as a catchy buzzword. That said, I don’t believe there was any intention of actually preventing team members from taking action on their own. Maintaining a high level of quality was critical to keep existing customers and attract new ones so there just wasn’t a lot of room for error. I’ve worked with other organizations where decisions truly could have been made at nearly any level of the hierarchy but were almost always thwarted if the grand-pooh-bah hadn’t anointed the individual, or at least blessed the idea in advance.

Several years ago, while working with three or four other folks from around the United States to support several hundred individuals around the world to roll out a very unique event, our small group was tasked with achieving some very specific goals. We had been given a few very basic guidelines, which essentially said we had no budget to work with, but were told that whatever we came up with would be supported - as long as it didn’t cost anything. We were all volunteering our time and we had access to most of the technology we’d need so we came up with a detailed plan for exceeding the goals that had been set. Everything was going great, until the grand-pooh-bah looked at our plan and completely lost his shit because we thought he actually meant it when he said the details were up to us. This same guy who had previously defined torture as “being responsible for achieving results with no authority to do so” not only scrapped every bit of the plan we had put our time into, but he also mandated that anything we did moving forward would need his approval. So much for empowerment… (and I’ll let you guess how much time I’ve volunteered to support him since I finished that term!)

If we’re truly committed to helping our team members work toward their individual purpose while we’re working together to achieve our organization’s purpose, we’ll do well to help them grow however we can through the process. And talkin’ ain’t gonna be enough! We’d better back that talk with action. With that in mind, let’s consider three questions each team member will be asking of us as we work to empower them to reach their purpose.

How Are You Answering These Questions?

If empowering our team members requires a significant change in our approach, as compared to what they’re used to seeing from us, we’ll likely receive some curious looks and even some resistance - at least at first. We recently heard an example detailing exactly that as we kicked off the second session of our Emerging Leader Development course with a team of supervisors at a large manufacturing facility. In quizzing the fifteen or so participants on what specific action steps they had applied since we were with them a week prior for the first session, one of the longest tenured supervisors explained that he had been intentional to take the time to check in on each of his team members daily. He had been asking how they were doing, and even asked about their families or weekend activities. Like mine, his behavioral style was very fast-paced and task-oriented. His team had grown very accustomed to him pushing for results with little time for extra chatter. Make no mistake, I’m not suggesting that he’s a bad guy, he was just focused on getting the results that fuels us Driven folks. As he began showing more interest in each of them as individuals, there was bound to be some skepticism…

During the second lesson we covered with the group during that first session, Cindy and I emphasized something that we initially learned from John Maxwell’s Everyone Communicates, Few Connect about what each person wants to know from us as we work to build a relationship, especially if that’s a relationship where we hope to earn the kind of authentic influence that will help us lead them effectively. They want to know if we care for them, if we can help them, and if they can trust us. As we show that the answer to each is indeed a yes, the skepticism decreases and the results we’re able to achieve with them as a team increase.

As we develop a reputation for caring for our team members, being able and willing to help them grow in the organization (and in their life), and we consistently show that they can trust us, providing them with the authentic empowerment they’ll need to reach their individual purpose won’t be just words we say but an experience they feel. Let’s tie this together with specific steps any leader can take to provide their teams with support for achieving their own definite purpose through the required tasks involved in working toward the organizational purpose. This will require us to dial in on a few things for each of them.

A Path Toward Their Purpose

Helping our team members achieve real work/life harmony, rather than chasing the illusion of balance, by empowering them to work toward a meaningful purpose of their own will go a long way toward earning positive answers to each of the questions we just looked at. Keeping their purpose in front of them will show that we care, consistently looking out for their best interests (while still keeping them focused on the required tasks) will add to how they trust us, and providing them with the opportunities to grow in the areas that move them closer to reaching their individual purpose will show we’re investing into helping them. But to make sure we’re giving them the support they truly need overall rather than what they want in the moment, the part we looked at previously about listening to what they’re telling us and being able to verbalize the purpose they’re driven by needs to be something we’ve taken to heart!

 When we’ve done the work necessary to understand exactly what gets them out of bed in the mornings and where they see themselves in the years to come, we can actively look for ways to give them exposure to tasks and experiences that tie directly to what we’re working to achieve as an organization but also help prepare them for the next step in their career. In What’s KILLING Your Profitability? (It ALL Boils Down to Leadership!), I dedicated nearly an entire chapter to not pushing someone into a role just because it seems like the next logical step in their career progression. Truth be told, that’s where learning what drives our team members becomes critical. All the exposure in the world to new and different opportunities, as good as our intentions may be, can lead to a very different result than we hope for if the role we’re attempting to groom someone for isn’t aligned with a purpose that fulfills them.

The idea of Reproduction, the fourth R we challenge folks to consider near the end of our Emerging Leader Development course, certainly ties to preparing team members to succeed us in the roles we’re currently filling but it shouldn’t stop there - especially if our role (or whatever we’re attempting to prepare them for) doesn’t line up with their goals. It’s not all that empowering if we’re pushing someone in a direction they’d prefer not to go… The more in tune we are with the purpose that each of our team members are driven by and how we can connect those things back to what we’re working to achieve with them, the more effective we can be in creating a career path that feeds both while ensuring any delegation we’re able to do to reproduce ourselves is indeed moving them in a direction they’ll enjoy; one that’s in line with both their individual purpose and the organization’s purpose.

As we close this look at providing a clear purpose for each of the team members we lead, we’ll work through how we can help them develop a career path that feeds both AND yields the work/life harmony that only comes when there’s fulfillment in nearly everything we put our hand to. We’ll pick up there soon.