Recently, I’ve heard leaders from a lot of large companies talk about the need to be agile and creative in the face of rapidly changing customer needs. But for many of those leaders, the need is at odds with their desire for control.
The conflict is particularly apparent in the freedom, or lack thereof, leaders give to their employees who interact with customers on a daily basis. Small teams within the company might be trying creative, experimental approaches to pressing problems, but allowing frontline employees to be creative in their work is seen as risky. Isn’t it safer and more efficient to rigorously standardize how they interact with customers and leave the agility to someone else?
Optimizing for control is often my first instinct, particularly as a general counsel. But I’ve learned that it’s all too easy to take the approach too far.
A revealing example dates back to my first stint as the head of a company’s legal department. Our CEO had asked me to create company-wide guidelines for deal negotiation, adding that the result should be an army of people just like me.
I was flattered by his comment, but it added a sense of pressure. My response was to dive into building very prescriptive negotiation playbook. It was my way of trying to control decision making by applying my personal strategies to a wide variety of circumstances.
As I soon learned, this wasn’t the right approach at all.
You see, I’d misunderstood what my CEO really wanted. When he asked for an army of people like me, I assumed that he meant people who negotiated deals the way I would, and I went about making sure the company did just that.
But what he actually wanted was people who got the kind of results I did.
It’s a subtle but important distinction. Instead of empowering people to get good results, I focused on managing the details of how they should achieve them. I ignored the fact that any good negotiation requires nuanced, in-the-moment thought—and that my CEO had actually given me a great deal of freedom in accomplishing his request.
The result was an overly restrictive playbook that often hindered the negotiation dynamic and essentially reduced my team members to automatons instead of drawing on their intelligence. Until I realized my error, that playbook led our company to underperform in negotiations, miss out on valuable learning opportunities, and waste time scrambling for fixes whenever my process failed to anticipate an issue.
What does this have to do with managing customer-facing employees?
Well, like good negotiation, quality customer interactions are hard to automate. You can prescribe stringent scripts and processes for your employees to follow when helping customers. But such processes are usually better for managing a subset of employee activities than for controlling the overall quality of actual interactions. As I learned, no script can account for every dynamic that emerges when two people work together. And when employees just parrot a script, something essential is lost: an authentic human connection.
As a leader, the braver, humbler, and more effective approach is to focus less on managing the processes your team members follow and more on empowering them to get good results.
What this approach looks like in practice varies greatly. Here are a few elements of how I apply it today:
- A focus on results. We don’t just treat adaptability and problem solving as ways to make our work more exciting. They’re tools for constructively navigating complex negotiations and getting to agreements that satisfy both parties. For customer-facing teams, this simple perspective shift can help employees weigh their creative ideas against what’s best for the customer and the company.
- Fewer, firmer boundaries. When someone on my team enters a negotiation, I establish a clear goal and a set of firm boundaries— for example, steering clear of types of liability that would put our company at unacceptable risk. For customer-facing teams, The Ritz-Carlton’s simple service standards offer an example of what such guidelines can look like.
- Frequent communication and feedback. I encourage people to check in with me whenever they encounter a knotty problem. For someone managing customer-facing teams, this can mean coaching time with managers as well as being able to see feedback from customers.
- Smart, creative employees. Having a great team is critical for this approach—but if you’re not sure your team qualifies as “great,” don’t let that be an excuse for not trying it. Creating opportunities for people to apply their intelligence at work goes a long way toward attracting people worthy of that trust. This philosophy has made it easier for me to retain strong team members and to help them develop into the kind of leaders our company needs.
The result of all of this? Our whole team, myself included, works more creatively. We’re more responsive to unexpected problems, and we continuously learn from one another’s unique experiences. I also find my work more fulfilling when I have the opportunity to try out approaches that are different from my own.
So to any leader who’s struggling with the desire for control, I’d say: I understand that desire. Relinquishing it will certainly result in some mistakes. But with the right goals and boundaries, you might be surprised by how adaptable your employees become—and how much untapped creativity they have to offer.
Photo Credit: Per