BEST JOB AUTONOMY
More and more companies are realizing that employees know things that bosses simply can't. The best businesses are capitalizing on it

In 1988 Dave Wiegand figured he had maybe 90 days before he had to shut down Advanced Network Design Inc. (ADNET). The La Mirada, Calif., telecommunications company was withering, thanks largely to his "demand management" style. The more he pushed, the less productive his then 35 employees became. Unsure of how to halt the company's slide, he hired a turnaround expert.

In designing a strategy for ADNET, the consultant invoked the concept of job autonomy. If Wiegand could match the right individuals to the right positions, then give them authority and responsibility, he was told, the likely result would be stronger motivation, better work quality, higher job satisfaction, and lower turnover.

Wiegand, a self-confessed control freak, bought into the idea -- reluctantly. Yet the eventual shift was so drastic that some employees couldn't adapt and ended up leaving. But that was OK. In the process, Wiegand learned a few things about human behavior. First, implementers, unlike initiators, can't easily handle the freedom. Second, before hiring for any job, it's critical to pinpoint the specific traits that the position requires.

"We identify 15 or 20 traits," Wiegand says. "Does it require someone who's detail oriented or who has good time-management skills? If so, we build an interview that probes for those, and we put candidates through tests designed to assess whether they have those traits."

On day one, new hires get a list of what Wiegand calls key result areas. "If they have, say, 30 responsibilities, there might be 4 or 5 that will generate 80% of the results we expect. We identify those key areas, explain them, and then we train. Once employees have shown they can master a task, we just turn it over to them. Then they just report to management on a weekly or monthly basis."

ADNET perked up as Wiegand phased in the strategy and restaffed with new people. He encouraged them to suggest improvements -- everything was open for discussion. Instead of imposing a decision, he built a consensus. "That's more work up front," he says, "but once a decision is made, it sticks. Before, I'd make a decision and nobody would buy into it."

Employees warmed to the new system. "It's much more productive," says Carmen Pugliese, client-services supervisor, who has survived the change. "My supervisor used to dictate all my weekly and monthly goals. Now I set my own goals, and I can prioritize them better, so the flow is smoother. And if you see something that needs to be done, you do it. Job satisfaction is much stronger now."

Indeed, job satisfaction is Wiegand's top priority, and he makes a good case for it. "If we don't have satisfied employees, we can't have satisfied customers. And if you don't have either, you won't be profitable," he says.

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Many components go into making a company a great place to work, and more than ever, job autonomy is one of them. In a 1991 Gallup poll, workers were asked what they valued most in a job. With a 64% response, "ability to work independently" beat even "high income" and "chances for promotion."

It's not surprising. In today's stressed economy, raises, when they come, are slim. And many college graduates can't find work in their chosen fields. One way to alleviate frustration in an increasingly well-educated work force is to provide some level of autonomy.

It makes sense for management, too. Bosses don't have all the answers; increasingly, they need the intellect of everyone in the company, right down to the loading-dock crew. By and large, however, company leaders find it hard to yield control, and once they do, the payoffs seldom come fast. It was two years before Wiegand knew he was benefiting from letting go. "There were times when I wondered why I wasn't out selling new accounts instead of doing this," he says, "but I'm glad I persevered. Our 20 employees are handling more work than 35 had done previously, and I feel more in control of the operation today."

Companies don't necessarily approach job autonomy in the same way. Some call it empowerment, or self-management, or employee participation, and then devise a hybrid that best suits their needs. Founders and CEOs embrace the general concept for various reasons. Some instinctively believe it's the best way to manage people. Others, like Wiegand, try it out of desperation. More commonly, some version of autonomy is the end product of an amalgam of catalysts, from work experience to seminars on leadership.

Lori Sweningson, CEO of Job Boss Software Inc., based in Minneapolis, implemented the idea of autonomy three years ago after taking an executive-education course. Back at work, she rehashed the program's case studies with employees. In the process, she says, "I realized they knew more than I know. Before, I'd been like a benevolent dictator who got things done, working insane hours. Now I think of the company as a volleyball team. It takes three hits to get the ball over the net, and it doesn't matter who hits it."

Now Sweningson encourages employees to take ownership of their jobs. Sales assistant Mary Ann Jones, who works for three sales reps, has done just that. "I make my own decisions about how I want to run their territories," she says.

Sweningson is no Pollyanna, though. She runs a rigorous recruitment process; all applicants go though six interviews (some conducted by teams) and then spend half a day with an industrial psychologist (cost: $500 a head).

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Crucial to the effectiveness of yielding power to the people is the need for clear and constant communication. Some CEOs take an especially proactive approach. "If you actually ask people for ideas, they will tell you. But the burden is on you to ask, or they won't think you're interested. When you do ask, you find an amazing pot of gold," says Rusty Childress of Childress Buick Co., a Phoenix auto dealership.

Childress began empowering employees in 1988 as part of his "crisis management" plan. Customer satisfaction had dropped drastically -- retention was down to 30%. To improve it, he disassembled the company's autocratic management style. Today he stresses that he wants his employees to use their judgment and initiative from day one. The message is getting through; recently, a team from the service department decided to run a shuttle-bus service to a local horse-race track for customers who had cars in the shop.

In the showroom, salesman Jim Lather finds the latitude a big asset. "We all work our own deals from start to finish," he says. "Customers are more relaxed when they know they're dealing with someone who doesn't have to go ask the manager for a price every two minutes." These days Childress enjoys retention rates of up to 70%, remarkable in the car business.

One precept of autonomy, of course, is the belief that employees want to do a good job. What impresses Bob Freese, CEO of Alphatronix Inc., in Research Triangle Park, N.C., is how hard people will work when they're allowed to set their own objectives. "We let employees tell us when they can accomplish a project and what resources they need," he says. "Virtually always, they set higher goals than we would ever set for them."

Another precept: when you entrust employees to make decisions, some parameters must be set. "You can't just hire the best people and let them have at it," says Curt Rawley, CEO of Avid Technology Inc., in Tewksbury, Mass. What's called for is a set of checks and balances. "You're given some general guidelines, but after that you're free to get the job done the best way you can," says Marc Oliver, an equipment tester at Avid.

At Action Instruments Inc., in San Diego, CEO Jim Pinto calls those guidelines "gray boundaries." The scope of autonomy at Action depends on an employee's duties. Test technician Juan Estrada thinks it's terrific that he can handle an unexpected test situation if his supervisor isn't around. For systems analyst Brett Henning, the authority level is higher. "I get a start point for a project and an end point, and I fill in the middle," he says. "Right now we're rewriting the computerized inventory system. So I assemble a team of people who have a stake in it, and we pretty much decide everything."

Employee autonomy works a little differently in every company, and its effectiveness lies as much in the nuances of empowerment as in the broad outlines. If it were otherwise, everyone would be doing it by now.

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Companies with a high level of job autonomy usually have these characteristics:

They invest a lot of time and effort in hiring, to make sure new recruits can handle workplace freedom.

Their organizational hierarchy is flat.

They set loose guidelines, so workers know their decision-making parameters.

Accountability is paramount. Results matter more than process.

High-quality performance is always expected.

Openness and strong communication are encouraged.

Employee satisfaction is a core value.


BEST JOB AUTONOMY

Action Instruments

San Diego

Instrument manufacturer

200 employees, $25 million in sales

Urges employees to "make it happen" to solve problems that they discover. Sets loose boundaries to define scope of autonomy. Engenders self-motivation through open-book financial disclosure.

Advanced Network Design

La Mirada, Calif.

Phone-service reseller

20 employees, $3.7 million in sales

Hires rigorously, trains thoroughly, and then turns employees loose to perform. Provides very little supervision for anyone, including receptionist. Has employees report work progress weekly or monthly.

Alphatronix

Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Optical-storage-systems maker

70 employees, $11.8 million in sales

Puts recruits through up to five interviews, then assigns them their own projects. Has employees set their own goals and timetables for project completion.

Avid Technology

Tewksbury, Mass.

Film-editing-system maker

320 employees, $50 million in sales

Screens potential hires based on company's 10 core values, like teamwork, honesty, and passion to win. Lets employees design their own work schedules.

Childress Buick

Phoenix

Automobile dealer

105 employees, $30 million in sales

Empowers salespeople to cut deals on their own. Urges ser-vice-department teams to boost customer satisfaction. Actively solicits employee ideas.

Job Boss Software

Minneapolis

Developer of factory software

40 employees, $2.3 million in sales

Encourages employees to take ownership of their jobs. Hires rigorously, trains well, and then grants employees wide latitude. Has managers act more as facilitators than as bosses.