Empowering Teams To Innovate Through Principled Leadership

Joseph Dennis Kelly

History is rich with tales of highly skilled teams that failed and equally competent teams that thrived. Which factor often differentiated those that excelled from those that floundered? Team empowerment.

During my 20+ years working on editorial, communications, and marketing teams, I’ve repeatedly discovered that the most successful teams had the authority to act and the leeway to explore new ideas. They were guided by leaders who embraced four principles for empowering teams.

Entrusting Authority

Trust is a catch-22. Like respect, one must earn it. But to earn it, one must first have the opportunity to prove their trustworthiness.

My best performing teams were each trusted with the roles and responsibilities they were given. But they were only entrusted after each team member clearly understood what they needed to do and what they were allowed to do. CTO Edward F. Macnamara (Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP) sums it up well: “[Our IT staff is] clear on the standard steps that need to be followed and how much discretion they have in following the process. Most importantly they know when they are stepping out of bounds…where discretion is allowed and where permission and/or discussion is required” (p. 7).

Leaders entrust authority by designing work environments enabling communicative, collaborative, and empathetic team interactions – environments modeled on the first two principles:

  • Establishing Expectations: My best leaders clearly outlined and communicated the team’s tactics and goal, each member’s role and responsibilities, and the organization’s rules. Only after everyone understood these expectations were we more likely to own our work, meet our commitments, and go the extra mile to support each other.

Encouraging Actualization

Sometimes, even most trusted and informed teams under-perform. When this happens, the leader needs to help them recover. Xerox Canada President and CEO Mandy Shapansky knows what to do: “In challenging times…employees need to be at the top of their game…confidence and optimism are absolutely critical…my role is to motivate and nurture the talent inside our organization.”

I learned how leaders this trait by watching Charlie Manuel, the manager of my hometown baseball club, the Philadelphia Phillies.

Over the past few seasons, many of the team’s best players – including all-stars Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, and Ryan Howard – fell into prolonged slumps, often at the worst times, and nearly as often, costing the team crucial wins. Regardless of this obvious cost, and the duration of a player’s slump, Manuel supported each player as each needed. Even when the team’s fans and media – who simply wanted wins – criticized Manuel for not replacing these players, he gracefully stood firm, shielded his players, and gave each the time and guidance to get back on track.

After regaining their groove, each player played with more confidence. Each also lauded Manuel for his support and reciprocated by working harder to help the team win. Manuel’s example shows that teams can thrive – even during losing seasons – in ways which can prove more valuable than a win. Manuel’s behavior exemplifies principles three and four:

  • Instilling Confidence: My favorite leaders openly expressed their confidence in each team member’s ability – to the individual, the team, and all stakeholders, both within and outside the company. I learned that such endorsements often begin with reframing dialogues with others.
  • Enabling Creativity, Learning, Recovery, and Achievement:  My most effective teams were usually small, flexible, and capable of responding quickly. These teams also gave each member the room to experiment, fail, and grow. These types of teams are possibly the best suited for developing innovations which support sustainable success.

Numerous studies show that empowered teams are the most capable helping organizations better serve their customers and outperform their competitors. And it all begins when leaders entrust their teams with the authority – and support them with the confidence – that individuals need to excel.

Does your organization apply these four principles? Does it embrace other principles to help empower its IT teams? How has empowerment enabled your IT teams to perform better?

About Joseph Dennis Kelly

Joseph is a senior-level editorial and communication specialist with more than twenty years experience in StratCom, MarCom, CrisCom, EditGov, and EditOps. He previously served as a senior editor/writer on SAP’s Global Content Team and as the executive editor of PMI's Knowledge Center. He contributes to the SAP Community Network (SCN), serving as space editor for the Social Media and Social Networks blog. Recent accomplishments include directing SAP’s blogging campaign for Social Media Week 2012, leading the editorial and blogging strategy for SVForum’s inaugural MarketingCamp–Silicon Valley, and developing the digital media strategy for a Pennsylvania state senator’s successful 2012 re-election campaign. @JosDenKelly