Empowerment doesn’t work

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I once had a great boss - a seriously capable and gifted individual (an ex-management consultant, he went on to run one of the largest professional services firms in the recruitment industry in the country, so this guy was no fool).

He taught me that empowerment - i.e. giving the troops the “permission” and the budgets to get out there, give “that extra mile” of service and get closer to clients and prospective clients - doesn’t work.

At least, not unless it is part of a much wider reaching initiative that includes changing the way people think as well as act, which contains targets, which modifies existing systems and which monitors and rewards success.

He did lots of the right things: he diagnosed that people were spending too much time being “technicians” and not enough time giving clients high service levels; too much time reacting to ITT’s and not enough time attracting clients; etc.

He carved money out of a very tight budget to allocate to empowerment; he put the internal communications machine into overdrive – we were all in no doubt that there was an issue; that we had explicit permission to spend money on getting closer to clients and going that extra mile for them; he prodded us to take action; etc., etc.

And almost nothing happened. The vast bulk of the budget went unspent and people carried on pretty much as before, only just a bit more cynical. 

The folk who naturally were inclined to go the extra mile for existing clients and attract new ones went on doing that. A couple of wee chancers would wine and dine their mates at the firm’s expense, but most people didn’t change their behaviour one tiny bit.

Don’t get me wrong - empowerment is extremely important, however it is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success. If the aim is to raise service levels significantly; if it is to attract new clients enthusiastically, then you need to have a whole bunch of conditions in place, before empowerment will work.

Of course in smaller firms this is frequently easier than in larger organisations, but the challenges are often the same in character.

Here’s an overview of some of the big ones: Firstly, you have to really understand the root causes of the problems and face up to them. And some of these are tough (but not impossible) to crack.

Challenges here range from simple, attitudinal issues - such as staff being uninterested in providing great service; through simple, skill issues - such as staff not properly understanding what clients are really looking for in terms of service or understanding what makes clients interested in your firm in the first place.

There are also more complex, contentious, systemic issues - such as partners running an informal “eat what you kill” system; disputes over generation versus execution remuneration; unclear rewards for success or consequences of failure; billing targets too tight for marketing or service initiatives; “ownership” of clients (it should be the firm, never individuals); lack of knowledge - or straight distrust - of other colleagues; lack of rules and systems to deliver great service and attract clients effectively. The list goes on…

These are serious issues that require careful thought and skilful, determined action, because if they are left unresolved, you will be hobbling your firm’s efforts to improve. Next, and much more easily, you have to give individuals the tools they may need to become more empowered.

On the client attraction front, these might include budgets, but also the production of integrated, relevant campaigns to enable them to get face to face with potential clients, to build and deepen rapport. And some folk need to be shown how to do this work properly.

On the service improvement front, tools (and the skills needed to use them properly) might include client prioritisation (using portfolio or simple max gain / minimise loss criteria), client role mapping, force field analysis to prioritise opportunities and roadblocks.

One bunch of tools involves client tracking and this is a major hurdle for some. How many firms out there have invested in sophisticated CRM products, which everyone ignores (or uses to game the system).

After that comes the monitoring and associated target setting to identify and reward success and deal with failure.

Many firms are really bad at keeping score but you know, the old adage of “what gets measured gets done” really does work. And it applies to marcomms firms just as much as their commercial brethren. Targets and monitoring may be dull, but they are important and may be hard work to get right.

Lastly, it is important that the firm’s leadership - all of it - is seen to be out there walking the walk. After all, if they are not visibly seen to be doing the hard work of attracting clients and giving great service (or are maybe explaining that their position in the firm is such that they don’t have to do this, but you do), then all your empowerment efforts will come to nothing. After all, if it is not seen to be important enough for the bosses to be doing it, why should anyone else.

So empowerment is good, empowerment is important. Just don’t expect it to work, unless you do all the other things needed to make it happen, as well.

On the plus side, if you go ahead empowering people without doing all the hard bits, at least it will not have cost much money. Just wasted time and possibly damaged your reputation...


Chris Matthews works mainly with marcomms firms' owners and managers, to give them advice, encouragement and help to overcome the challenges they face.