Introductory note: In addition to my role as on-demand general counsel at Outside GC, I am also the co-founder of Public Safety Network, a new firm providing business and operational expertise to established and start-up companies entering the public safety tech market which has been recently accelerated by the creation of FirstNet, the independent government authority responsible for bringing the first nationwide prioritized broadband wireless network to public service professionals. In the below article, I've shared some key principles on how to empower your workforce. Not only have these principles defined my approach throughout my management career, but they continue to guide my experience as a member of Outside GC's team, and lie at the core of the legal and business advice I provide to all of my clients so as to maximize desired business outcomes. I hope you enjoy! Jason
“It’s not personal, it’s just business.” How often have we heard this phrase, either from someone we know who has just done something we probably weren’t too happy about – or maybe from Michael Corleone in the “Godfather” or Tom Hanks in “You’ve Got Mail.” All too often, this phrase or concept is relied upon to justify certain “unsavory” behaviors under the guise that when we are engaging in business, the personal impact to the individuals involved is either not relevant or somehow mitigated. As they say in in Hollywood, it’s not “show friends, its show business.”
Well, I don’t buy it. I don’t believe any organization can effectively manage, motivate and develop its workforce without in fact making it personal. Recent surveys have Americans working anywhere on average from 44 to 60 hours per week depending on the profession. In some cases, this is most of our waking, daylight hours. So, if you’re spending this much time at work, shouldn’t it be in an environment that makes you feel valued, with people you respect and who respect you, and where maybe you even have a little fun along the way? If you are hesitating in your response at all, let me answer that for you…..YES! Yes, is the answer.
From my perspective, it is critical to make a personal connection with the people you work with, share common interests, and facilitate open and productive communication. Yes, it is true there are times when you may have to make decisions as a manager that affect your staff positively or negatively, but if there is a mutual respect and personal empowerment, the outcomes can be much more effective and constructive.
Now, I am not saying become best friends with everyone at work. Appropriate distance and respect for one’s personal space is paramount. But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t take the time to get to know your employees and co-workers, show genuine interest in their well-being and development, and empower them as recognized and valued contributors. Doing so won’t just improve personal satisfaction…heck, it is just good business.
So where do you start? Not everyone is a “people person” or naturally is able to communicate and connect with people on a personal level. That’s ok. For me, I start with a written management philosophy and hand it out. It may sound a bit corny or a waste of time…. it’s not. I have been doing this long enough to know that if you don’t take the time to think through the human element of your professional environment and interactions and how to engage and empower people, and then write down your approach and share, believe it or not, it won’t get done – at least not at an organizational level. No matter your social predisposition or personality traits, writing down your ideas and management and work values will not only help you to organize your approach to management, but it will make you a better manager. So, write it down, share it with colleagues and mentors, get feedback, and then when ready, communicate it to everyone. So, let’s get to it….the Jason Karp top 15 approach to management and employee interactions….woo hoo!
- Mutual Respect – While this sounds logical, it is not always easy to know exactly what this means, or how to really demonstrate this trait. For me, it is about recognizing your employees as individuals, each with strengths and capabilities, as well as weaknesses, and giving them the autonomy to perform, and make mistakes, but helping them to develop and grow constructively along the way. It also means listening…really listening…and recognizing that everyone’s point of view has merit. In a phrase, treat your employees how you want to be treated (assuming of course you want to be treated well).
- Get to Know Your Team – This is basically kindergarten 101. Take the time to greet your employees and take a genuine interest in them and their personal interests. Spend some time with them in the office environment and during company social events, listen to them, and share some of yourself with them. Of course, there are limits, and everyone needs to use judgment as to what is appropriate to share, but it is about creating a personal connection.
- Open Door (Wide) – Ensure your teams know they are always welcome to come see you, and in fact, are encouraged to discuss any type of issues, concerns, thoughts or ideas. This is how teams collaborate and build trust. You need to be visible, and literally keep your door open when work permits.
- No Dumb Questions – There are no dumb questions … only dumb responses. Employees should be encouraged to ask as many questions as often as needed to stay informed and effectively do their jobs. I have found, particularly in group settings, that employees tend to get shy when it comes to asking questions based on fear of looking foolish or that there could be some negative repercussions to what is perceived as a “dumb” question. To combat this, I often use humor to break the ice. It helps for my employees and colleagues to relate to me as a human, not just as a manager. I will also engage my team in group settings by asking specific individuals opinion-eliciting questions to start to break down barriers and encourage interactions, learning and to make points. For example, “what do you think of …….” and just fill in the blank with a relevant topic. Yes, it puts them on the spot. It also works. Now, I won’t lie. On occasion as a young law student, I may have had a nightmare or two about my Civil Procedure professor completely embarrassing me with a series of complicated legal questions in front of the entire class to which I just could not conjure up a single answer. This is not what I am talking about. Ask simple, subjective opinion-seeking questions in a light-hearted way and offer your own opinion to elicit a positive, thoughtful response. This is where I believe Socrates had it right.
- No Surprises – Like most people, I am not too fond of surprises in the workplace (not counting of course the occasional surprise party - hint-hint). However, when it comes to our business, it is important for there to be minimal surprises and that managers and other relevant employees have clear visibility into ongoing issues so that they are best prepared to manage and address problems as they arise, rather than be faced with situations where there are few alternatives or little time to respond. Employees need to understand that they are expected to aggressively manage their areas, but keep others regularly updated on key issues.
- Empower, But Expect Accountability – This may be one of the most critical philosophies, at least in my approach, to ensuring a happy and effective workforce. Push decision making as far down into the organization as you reasonably can and empower your teams to take reasonable actions to meet communicated company objectives. Let employees shine and be successful and make mistakes. However, you should also expect your employees to take accountability for their decision-making and actions. These are critical tenets, but if implemented correctly, create efficiency and significant productivity. That is not to say that some commitments will never need to be modified or goals adjusted based on changes in circumstances. But if that is likely the case, then see Principle #5! Empowering your people and expecting performance will give them a sense of pride, accomplishment, contribution and respect. It doesn’t get more important than that.
- Encourage Employees to Express Their Opinions – I have always encouraged my teams to speak out and express their opinions respectfully and constructively. This is instrumental in understanding the alternatives, differing points of view, and potential reactions to strategies and decisions. The next great idea may come from someone from whom you never expected. Management should not be about status or levels. Everyone has their responsibilities and can and should contribute to the collective success of the organization. This exchange of ideas will also lead to buy-in and common understanding among the team even if the ultimate decision is to move in a different direction than that suggested.
- Making Mistakes Is OK – We all do it. Mistakes are inevitable and a part of life, both personally and professionally. I don’t mind mistakes as long as the decision/strategy was rational and well thought out. Mistakes are learning experiences and should be viewed as such. However, it is important that we all learn from mistakes and take steps not to repeat them. We are all human and fallible at times. Make sure your teams understand that and that we will all work together to continuously improve.
- Don’t Just Bring Problems, Bring Solutions – Part of mutual respect is accountability. Problems come up all the time and we need to deal with them together. However, communicate to your employees that when they present a problem, they should be prepared with possible or proposed rational solutions or alternatives. This demonstrates that they care about the issue, have thought about it and are prepared to take action to resolve it.
- Attention to Detail and Quality – Paying attention to detail demonstrates thoroughness, results in higher quality work product, and communicates a sense of pride and caring in work. This is particularly true when serving clients, who almost universally will have very high expectations of performance. In addition, it is critical that employees understand their audience, tailor all work products to the appropriate perspective and ensure they are well thought out before sharing. It is critical in my mind to always do what is right, rather than what is just easiest.
- Communication Is Critical – Just about every point in this blog emphasizes directly or indirectly the need for clear, open communication. It is important to share our ideas and concerns and do so as often as necessary. I am a big believer in over-communicating. Others may have a different philosophy, but in my mind, it is important to trust your team, share information and expect team members to act responsibly and appropriately. They will appreciate the transparency and trust, and you will benefit from common understanding among the group.
- Customer Focus – For all of my life I have been in a services role. Whether as a lawyer in private practice or in-house, as a manager within a business line, or in running my own businesses. I do not believe in the mantra that the “customer is always right.” But I do believe that the “customer is always the customer,” and that we are in business to provide a valued service to our customers. Without satisfied customers, you will not be successful…period. It is critical to be attentive to the needs of your customers and always act reasonably and rationally, but with a sense of urgency, to help find constructive and timely solutions. This should be the case even if support requests are arguably outside the scope of an employee’s formal responsibilities. No one should ever think “that is not my job.” At our organization, it is everyone’s collective responsibility to help find the right solution for customers. It not only helps them, but will instill a sense of trust and confidence in those with whom you work.
- Keep It Simple – Life and business are hard. Reduce complexity where possible, present ideas in simple terms based on target audience, but ensure thorough understanding of the details. Understand your customer’s business, obligations or point of view and always, always, always build relationships.
- Recognize Someone Before They Have to Ask – This is an interesting principle and one that often gets unique stares from people. But let me ask you this… have you ever been in a position where you felt like you were making significant contributions, but no one was recognizing your work? How did it make you feel? I am a firm believer in surrounding myself with people smarter than I am, holding them accountable, and recognizing them regularly for their contributions. It can be as simple as an email, or even better, a hand-written note thanking someone for their effort. More formally, it could be a strong performance review, or a financial or other incentive or bonus. The forms and types of recognition are only limited by your imagination. But I can tell you, if you hold people accountable and they perform, there is nothing more fulfilling than a simple thank you or other gesture of recognition. Trust me on this.
- Have Fun – This one is pretty simple and doesn’t need much explanation. With the amount of stress in our lives, the challenges at work and at home, and the sheer amount of time we spend working, doesn’t it make sense that we should all try to have a little fun? You guessed it, I am going to answer this one as well… YES. We all want to be successful, we all want to accomplish many things and meet expectations. But if you are not having any fun along the way, why bother? I recently returned from a week-long business trip with my partners. I traveled across the country, 4 flights in 5 days. We worked all day and into the evening non-stop. We got little sleep and were juggling multiple client meetings. When it came time to head home, however, we were all actually a little sad. Not at the prospect of going home or getting a break from such long days, but because we enjoy working together so much. It feeds us with energy and enables us to be more productive. Have fun and enjoy your team and colleagues as much as you can. You will not be sorry.
So, that’s it folks. My top 15 key management principles. Take them for what they are worth. Everyone is different. Adopt some, reject others, and revise the rest if needed. The point is, make your work environment a human one where people are respected, listened to, and empowered…and most of all try to have a little fun along the way. Doing so will pay huge dividends.
Jason Karp is a Member of Outside GC's Washington D.C.-based team and brings over 20 years of legal and business experience to his role, including significant experience in the technology and telecommunications industries and in the public sector. Jason works with both large corporations and start-up and emerging growth companies, handling commercial transactions, corporate governance, compliance, and regulatory and policy advocacy and strategy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.