Every leader talks about empowering employees, but few actually succeed. The reason so many leaders fall short is that truly empowering employees is hard. It doesn't happen without intentional effort and careful planning. Most of all, you have to intentionally think through your actions.

An active member of the Young Presidents' Organization (YPO), Jeff Booth, co-founder of BuildDirect, has figured out how to create a supremely empowered team. BuildDirect is changing the way that customers access home-improvement products. Their online building-supply marketplace had revenue that topped $150 million last year, explosive growth, and a recent funding round that exceeded $50 million. Booth has his eye on an IPO in the future and is counting on the empowered 315 (and growing) BuildDirect employees to get them there.

Booth makes employee empowerment a prime directive and it shows. BuildDirect has twice won Aon Hewitt's "Best Small & Medium Employers in Canada." Voted on by employees through a comprehensive survey covering workplace satisfaction, a key aspect of measurement for this award is employee engagement. Booth gives his team multiple creative channels to express themselves, including monthly fireside chats, a fully designated and funded social committee, employee-led giving initiatives, and actual voting privileges in the company's direction. You can learn from Booth's unique empowerment process below.

1. "Lead by authentic example."

The key word here is authentic. Many people try and demonstrate the example they want to be rather than the leader they really are. The team will see through the act and they will rebel. Booth advises,

To be a successful leader, I believe your actions must align with who you are. If you believe and trust in who you are, your employees will too. Then leading becomes easy. What's more, you'll attract the people that will comfortably follow your authentic example.

Booth suggests you figure out your own personal core values so you can lead with authenticity.

2. "Find a good message and stick with it."

Many leaders struggle trying to find a message that motivates. Booth points out that in today's fast-paced environment, people don't often give good directives an appropriate amount of time to take root, assuming that everyone will just quickly adapt. Then, when everyone isn't on board as fast as they would like, these misguided leaders abandon the decision, assuming it didn't work or was a wrong choice. Constant change and inconsistency breed insecurity and can paralyze a team. Booth cautions patience and faith:

Change doesn't happen overnight. Believe in your decisions, give people the time to adjust and process the change, and then help them find ways to adapt.

3. "Be curious about what's not being said."

Booth explains that most leaders focus only on solving issues that are readily apparent. Often in this casual observation they miss the truth, leaving the team feeling isolated and neglected. You can't assume people know how to articulate their real issues. Booth entreats you to dig deep and engage your curiosity:

While listening is always important, so is active investigation. If you want to overcome all obstacles, make sure you're also paying attention to what's happening below the surface.

4. "Connect the dots to the bigger dream."

What good is a killer strategy if the people on the frontlines don't understand the tactics needed to execute it? Booth is a big believer in alignment and understanding at every level of the company. BuildDirect is an avid follower of the Gazelles Scaling Up system, which keeps his team aligned and productive even in active times of change. Booth doesn't leave understanding to chance, investing heavily in communication and training. He easily justifies the dedicated time and resources, explaining,

In times of change, partner with your employees to help them understand why change is required. It is the duty of the leadership team to communicate new responsibilities to individual employees and show them how these roles ladder up to the big picture.

5. "Start with their worldview."

Great leaders understand that their followers come from different life paths and have different perspectives. Booth gets this distinction and makes it a point to see things from the employee's perspective before taking action. He believes that 

a strong leader is empathetic. You must walk in another's shoes to truly understand her perspective. Only then can you begin to address challenges and move towards helping that person grow and achieve great things.

6. "Make the success of others your first priority."

Booth decries leaders who focus mainly on their own success as their primary goal. He believes these narcissists will attract either followers who are self-focused mercenaries or employees who hold back because they don't see the point in following someone else's dream. He explains:

A great leader works for his team. Empowering people means genuinely committing to their success, not your own.

Booth extolls the beneficial flow of selflessness, saying,

When you make your team personally successful, you naturally create success for them and by default, for you. And then everyone wins.

7. "Commit to the selfless act."

Booth is wary of leaders who are afraid to have the difficult discussions. He understands it's hard for some to prioritize criticism over likeability. But on this point, Booth evangelizes,

Instead of holding back from telling people what they are doing wrong, be like the best friend who says, "I care more about you than I care about my own feelings." Be direct, respectful and have the hard conversations. While they may be difficult, they are the only way to help each person improve. Avoiding them only spares yourself from an awkward situation and nobody comes out on top.

Each week Kevin explores exclusive stories inside the Young Presidents' Organization, the world's premier peer-to-peer organization for chief executives ages 45 and younger.


Published on: Oct 2, 2015
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