Excluding the very small percentage of companies that seem to get it right almost instantaneously in the growth department - think Google and Facebook - the rest of us have had to work at growing our businesses much harder and more strategically to grow sustainably. The most important lesson I've learned over the years is that a team's strength and success stems from progressive management philosophies that emphasize personal responsibility over a top-down hierarchy. Whether it's unlimited paid leave, professional development budgets, cultivating personal brands or innumerable similar progressive policies that treat team members as responsible adults and send, ahem, traditional managers into paroxysms of anxiety.
At the core of progressive management philosophies is the culture of empowerment: a pervasive sense of autonomy over how a team completes its tasks, its ownership of outcomes and its ability to affect change within the organization. In other words, a culture of empowerment means everyone controls their own destiny. When everyone is empowered, team members are confident, outspoken, and passionate about their work, and they deliver amazing results. This empowerment builds slowly at the beginning, but by doing away with worry about managers and knowing leadership begins with the team, a company's power dynamic is fundamentally changed, and fear is replaced by a palpable, crackling energy to do big, seemingly impossible things.
Individual empowerment makes team members happy in a variety of ways. Aside from the added confidence in every aspect of their lives, there is a strong increase in productivity, quality of work and retention across the board. The team's happiness is infectious and will impact clients, from the "good vibes of spreading happiness" to the bottom line of higher quality of work.
While there are innumerable ways to cultivate empowerment, I believe these are the most important:
• Feedback. Ask for input on a regular basis, and provide feedback channels that are accessible, non-argumentative and genuine.
• Invest in your team. Encourage your team's participation in conferences, for them to give a guest lecture or have a professional come in to teach everyone how to market themselves on social media. By encouraging your team to work "out in the world," their pride, recognition and achievements are returned 10-fold when working with your clients.
• Accept that your team knows more about your work than you do. Have confidence in their decisions and knowing they are doing what is best for the company as a whole.
• Company perks. Offer incentives such as working from home and unlimited vacation days -- but make sure you're offering incentives they actually want and use. No matter the specifics of the benefits you offer, team members appreciate the gesture and feel more involved when they are deciding different factors about their work style that best suit their individual needs.
• Constantly exemplify, pursue and praise empowerment. Hold regular conversations about the value of empowerment and how it's maintained.
• Always hire people better and smarter than you. This requires a great deal of self-awareness and humility. If possible, make strategic hires of people that share the overall company culture, as well as similar interests to the rest of the team.
• Language is everything. Notice how I don't use the word "employee." This is deliberate, because your use of language reveals how you think about yourself, your work and the people around you. At best, employee is perceived as technical and stale; at worst, it's disempowering. (And never, ever refer to someone as a "resource"!) Employees are people and part of a team that you help lead. Everything you say or do should reinforce their importance and value.
Empowered team members can also be your best "sales tool." Confident, secure teams feel more responsible for the success of the company and are your greatest advocate in building relationships with your clients, as well as serving as your greatest proponent outside of the workplace, generating organic leads for the business. The majority of our business leads come from word-of-mouth based on the excellent work our employees produce, contacts they make at conferences or from the ideas they bring to our clients - such as their strategic concepts on how to better a project, which then leads to future work on the account.
Encourage your entire team - whether it's the leaders that naturally flock to the front or those that need a little push as they prefer to stand on the side lines - by talking to them, showing genuine interest in their ideas and perspectives, and letting them oversee their own path. You will be amazed at the enormous strides you'll make towards sustainable growth.